Retelling Cinderella

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac

In her seminal collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Chilhood, Jane Yolen discusses the "changeling life" of fairy tales as they travel from teller to teller, country to country, and century to century. Here she reflects on Cinderella in her various guises:

Cinderella by Edmund Dulac"The story of Cinderella has endured for over a thousand years, first surfacing in a literary source in 9th-century China. It has since been found from the Orient to the interior of South America, and over five hundred variants have been located by folklorists in Europe alone. This best-loved tale has been brought to life  over and over so many times, no one can say for sure where the oral tale truly began. But as Joseph Jacobs, the indefatigable Victorian collector, once said of a Cinderella story he printed, it was 'an English version of an Italian adaptation of a Spanish translation of a Latin version of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic translation of an Indian original.' That is certainly an accurate statement of the hazards of folk-tale attributing: each reteller has brought to a tale something of his or her cultural orientation. The Chinese admiration for the tiny 'lotus foot' is preserved in the Cinderella tale, as is the 17th century European preoccupation with dressing for the ball.

"But beyond the cultural accoutrements, the detritus of centuries, Cinderella speaks to all of us in whatever skin we inhabit: the child mistreated, a princess or highborn lady in disguise bearing her trials with patience, fortitude, and determination. Cinderella makes intelligent decisions, for she knows that wishing solves nothing without the concomitant action. We have each of us been that child. (Even boys and men share that dream, as evidenced by the many Ash-boy variants.) It is the longing of any youngster sent supperless to bed or given less than a full share at Christmas. And of course it is the adolescent dream.

Cinderella by Arthur Rackham

Cinderella tile by Edward Coley Burne-Jones

"To make Cinderella less than she is, an ill-treated but passive princess awaiting rescue, cheapens our most cherished dreams and makes mockery of the magic inside us all -- the ability to change our own lives, the ability to control our own destinies.

Cinderella by Ruth Sanderson

Cinderella by Ruth Sanderson

"In the oldest of the Cinderella variants, the heroine is hardly catatonic. In the Grimm 'Cinder-Maid,' though she weeps, she continues to perform the proper rites and rituals at her mother's grave, instructing the birds who roost there in the way to help her get to the ball. In 'The Dirty Shepherdess' variant and 'Cap  o' Rushes' from France, '...she dried her eyes, and made a bundle of her jewels and her best dresses and hurriedly left the castle where she was born.' Off  she goes to make her own life, working first as a maid in the kitchen and sneaking off to see the master's son. Even in Perrault's 17th-century 'Cendrillon, or The Little Glass Slipper,' when the fairy godmother runs out of ideas for enchantment, and was at a loss for a coachman, 'I'll go and see,' says Cendrillon, 'if there be never a rat in the rat-trap, we'll make a coach-man of him.'

Cinderella by Liiga Klavina

"The older Cinderella is no namby-pamby forgiving heroine. Like Chesterton's children, who believe themselves innocent and demand justice -- unlike adults who know themselves guilty and look for mercy -- Cinderella believes in justice. In 'Rushen Coatie' and 'The Cinder-Maid,' the elder sisters hack Cinderella by Jennie Harbouroff their toes in order to try and fit the tiny shoe, and Cinderella never stops them. Her telltale birds warn the prince:

Turn and peep, turn and peep,
There's blood within the shoe;
A bit is cut from off the heel
And a bit from off the toe.

"Does Cinderella comfort her maimed sisters? Nary a word. And, in the least bowdlerized of the German and Nordic variants, when the two sisters attend the wedding of Cinderella and the prince, 'the elder was at the right side and the younger at the left, and the pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them.' Did Cinderella stop the carnage -- or the wedding? There is never a misstep between that sentence and the next. 'Afterwards, as they came back, the elder was on the left, and the younger on the right, and then the pigeons pecked out the other eye from each. And thus, for their wickeness and falsehood, they were punished with blindess all their days.'

Cinderella's Stepsisters by Charles Folkard and Harry Clarke

"Of course, all this went into the Walt Disney blender and came out emotional pap. In 1950, when the movie Cinderella burst onto the American scene, the Disney studios were going through a particularly trying time. Disney had been deserted by the intellectuals who had championed his art for some time. Because of World War II, the public had been more interested in war films than cartoons. But with the release of Cinderella, the Disney studios made a fortune, grossing $4.247 million in the first release alone. It set a new pattern for Cinderella: a helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by the talking mice and birds because she is 'off in a world of dreams.' It is a Cinderella who is not recognized by her prince until she is magically back in her ball gown, beribboned and bejeweled.

Cinderella by Mary Blair

Cinderella by Loek Koopmans

"Poor Cinderella. Poor us. The acculturation of millions of boys and girls to this passive Cinderella robs the old tale of its invigorating magic. The story has been falsified and the true meaning lost -- perhaps forever."

Cinderella by Loek Koopmans

If you'd like to know more about the history of Cinderella and it's many variants, my essay on the subject is online here: Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass.

Cinderella by Loak Koopmans

Pictures: The Cinderella art above is by Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Ruth Sanderson, Liiga Klavina, Jennie Harbour, Charles Folkard, Harry Clarke, Mary Blair, and Loek Hoopmans. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Words: The passage above from "Once Upon a Time" by Jane Yolen, published in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text above are reserved by the author and artists.


Stories lean on stories

The Enchanted Wood by Ruth Sanderson

From Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Children by Jane Yolen:

"Over the last few years there have been many educational councils and conferences, papers and presentations about the need to return to the Basics -- to the teaching of the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. But they are not the only subjects that are vital to our intellectual and human growth. An understanding of, a grounding in, a familiarity with the old lores and wisdoms of the so-called dead worlds is also a basic developmental need. Folklorist Charles Potter has written, 'Folklore is a lively fossil that refuses to die.' If children are invited to greet the great stories, to shake hands with the lively fossil, they will soon discover -- as did their parents before them -- that the well-kept bones are indispensable to the life of the mind....

Flowering by Ruth Sanderson

"One of the basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion. With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving an new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and trepid helpers, even incompetent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, the landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

"Stories lean on stories, art on art. This familiarity with the treasure-house of ancient story is necessary for any true appreciation of today's literature. A child who has never met Merlin -- how can he or she really recognize the wizards in Earthsea? The child who has never heard of Arthur -- how can he or she totally appreciate Susan Cooper's The Grey King? The child who has never known dryads or fauns will not recognize them in Narnia, or find their faces on museum walls or in the black silhouettes on Greek vases. Never to have trod the stony paths of Mount Pelion with Chiron and to have seen only the sexually precocious centaurs of Fantasia or the horsemen on TV's Hercules is to be diminished, narrowed, condemned to live in a cultural landscape that is dry as dust."

The Sleeping Beauty by Ruth Sanderson

The Sword in the Stone by Ruth Sanderson

"[Folklore also provides] a way of looking at another culture from the inside out. If a child becomes familiar with the pantheon of Greek gods, who toy with human lives as carelessly as children at play, then the Greek world view begins to come into focus. If a child learns about the range of Norse godlings who wait for heroic companions to feast with them at Valhalla, then the Vikings' emphasis on battle derring-do makes more sense. The study of the myth-making process, of those things that come together in a culture and propel a folk towards a coherent mythology, may be a very sophisticated one indeed, but its beginnings are back in the tales themselves.

The Golden Mare, the Firebird and the Magic Ring by Ruth Sanderson

"Stories lean on stories, cultures on cultures. Just as any great city is built on the stones and bones of its ancestors, so too is any mythology. And if our children can look at their own modern folklore within a broader context, they will see some very surprising shadows indeed. Spider-Man and TV's Hercules, Buffy and Xena do not spring from a void but from needs within our own culture. And those needs lean on past needs.  Maureen Duffy writes in The Erotic World of Faery: 'We remake our mythology in every age out of our own needs. We may use ideas lying around loose from a previous system or systems as part of the fabric. The human situation doesn't radically alter and therefore certain myths are constantly reappearing.' "

Rose Red & Snow White by Ruth Sanderson

Cinderella and Snow White & Rose Red by Ruth Sanderson

"And if we deny our children their cultural, historical heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the serious problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is a most import part of our human condition.

"Our children today face a serious deprivation -- the loss of the word, of words. For as stories depend on stories, lives depend on lives. Contact and continuity are essential links in the long chain of human culture....

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

"A child conversant with the old tales accepts them with an ease born of familiarity, fitting them into his own scheme of things, endowing them with new meaning. That old fossil, those old bones, walk again, and sing and dance and speak with a new tongue. The old stories bridge the centuries."

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The Snow Princess by Ruth Sanderson

The imagery today is by Ruth Sanderson, a book artist and author based in western Massachusetts. Ruth grew up in a small town where her grandmother was a librarian, and much of her youth was spent in the woods, on the back of a horse, or with her nose in a book. She studied at Paier College of Art in Connecticut, then embarked on an illustration career focused on children's books in the mid-1970s. She has published over 80 books since then, including Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White & Rose Red, Goldilocks, The Enchanted Wood, The Fairy by Ruth SandersonCrystal Mountain, The Snow Princess, and Papa Gatto, all much beloved by young (and old) readers. She is a member of the Society of Illustrators, the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators, and the Western Massachusetts Illustrator's Guild, as well as co-founder of the Children's Book Illustration program at Hollins University.

"The archetypal characters and the symbolism that one finds in fairy tales," she says, "contain truths that are universal and can be as meaningful for children today as they have been for centuries past. So many of them are 'rites of passage stories,' where the hero (child) leaves home to seek adventure or to go on an impossible quest, learning in the process how to become independent and to form new relationships outside of parental influence. In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the three magical woods that the princesses pass through are symbolic to me of their rite of passage into adulthood.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson

The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Ruth Sanderson x

"My original story The Enchanted Wood grew out of my love for the woods, for paths, for fairytales. Trees have always had the ability to hold me spellbound, at sunset especially. An old tree can have such character and majesty. In the story, three sons go on a quest for the Heart of the World (which is a magical “tree of life”) The fact that success often comes at a great sacrifice is the central theme of this story.

"Papa Gatto is the result of combining a number of Italian fairytales with a similar element -- a talking cat. It is a Cinderella-type story with a bit of Puss in Boots as well. And a slightly modern twist at the end, when the young lady declines the Prince’s proposal in favor of living with her beloved cats!"

Please visit Ruth's Golden Wood Studio to learn more about her work.

Papa Gatto by Ruth Sanderson

Illustration by Ruth Sanderson

The passages quoted above are from "How Basic is Shazam?" by Jane Yolen, published in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 2981; August House, 2000). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


Running with wolves

Wolf Warrior by Susan Seddon Boulet

Of all wild stories, the ones involving wolves seem somehow the wildest, for the wolf is an animal who carries our love and fear of wilderness in equal measure. A wide range of wolf mythology can be found around the world wherever wolves have roamed: in some tales they are depicted as culture heroes and loyal companions to the gods; in others they are devilish, destructive figures, enemies of the gods and humankind alike, agents of primal chaos.

Leaping Wolf by Jackie Morris

The tradition of the wolf as warrior-hero is older than recorded history, writes Barry Lopez in his magnificent book Of Wolves and Men:

"The legend of Romulus and Remus and other wolf children point up another ancient image, that of the benevolent wolf-mother. The deaths of those taken for werewolves and burned alive in the Middle Ages represent yet another, focusing negative feelings about the wolf.

"I have written about the wolf as a symbol of twilight; other writers have suggested, and I agree with them, that the wolf is a symbol reflecting two human alternatives at war: instinctual urges and rational behavior. In Hesitant Wolf and Scrupulous Fox, Karen Kennerly says the wolf is the creature who is most like us in fable. 'Out of phase with himself,' she says, 'he is defeated alternately by hubris and naivete. He becomes the irreconcilability between instinct and rational thought.' His attempts to live a rational life is defeated by his urge to behave basely. Thus, the human and bestial natures. The central conflict between man's good and evil natures is revealed in his twin images of the wolf as a ravening killer and as nurturing mother. The former was the werewolf; the latter the mother to children, like Romulus and Remus, who found nations."

Pope Tricksie & the Wolves by Tricia Cline

Papa Wolf & Tree and Exile of the Wolf by Tricia Cline

The wolves of myth, of course, are human creations, and have little to do with the actual lives of wolves living in the wild -- a subject that has been studied extensively by scientists of many different stripes in modern times, and about which there is much we still don't know, or fully understand. Wolf packs are complex, sophisticated systems -- and it seems that every time wolf scholars assert theories about precisely how they work, new data arises to shatter those theories. In a world where we like to map and track and pin knowledge down into cold, hard facts, the wolves elude us, slipping back into dark, starless night of mystery.

This makes them irresistible creatures for writers of "wild stories," and the howling of wolves can be found in many good (and not-so-good) works of fantasy fiction.

Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf by Vikto Vasnetsov

One of my favorite wolf stories is The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. It's an absolutely splendid novel, which I'll let the author describe herself:

"The Wolf Wilder is a fairy tale of sorts; in it, two children ride wolves across Russia in the snow. Much of fiction writing involves finding new ways to talk about old desires, and mine is a litany of all the things I dreamt of as a child: snow, knife, skis, wolf, boy. My source-text was the glorious Russian fairy tale, The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. In it Ivan Tsarevich, the son of a Tsar, is sent to catch a firebird that is eating his father's apples. He comes to a crossroads where a choice is set out: 'Whoever goes to the right shall die. Whoever goes along the Ivan and Grey Wolf by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)middle way will have his horse devoured by the grey wolf.' Ivan takes the middle road and, in the blunt diction of fairy tales, the grey wolf does indeed eat his horse, then suggests that Ivan ride on his own back to glory, instead.

"What I remember most clearly is one line. 'The grey wolf said, 'Get on my back and hang on tightly': and the wolf carried him off 'just as if he were on a swan's back.' That line reverberates with desire, both childlike and adult. It captures the doubleness of innocence and experience in fairy tales -- as Carol Ann Duffy writes in her poem 'Little Red Cap': What little girl doesn't dearly love a wolf?

"Shape-shifting wolves have always had cultural bite. The very first transformation scene in Ovid is also one of the earliest fictional accounts of lycanthropy, and was always the story in the Metamorphoses that I, as an unpleasant child, loved most. King Lycaon murders a hostage sent from Epirus, cooks his limbs 'still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire,' and serves it to Zeus as a feast that doubles as a taunt. In vengeance, Zeus strikes his palace with lightning and sends Lycaon out into the wild. 'There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws.' Transformation, in Ovid, is a kind of truth-telling.

Red Riding Hood by Gustav Dore

"Wolves offer a straightforward kind of truth, too. In Charles Perrault's 1697 version of Little Red Riding Hood; girls who get into bed with strange men don't survive. The wolf, for Perrault, is an entirely unsubtle stand-in for human lust. Angela Carter took Perrault's stories and inverted them; the result was The Bloody Chamber. Carter's world transforms the tradition of captured, passive girls; instead, it is delicious and dangerous: all dirt and diamonds, dust on mirrors, girls with architectural cheekbones and red cloaks. The young women in her tales are their own fairy godmothers. Her Red Riding Hood, faced with a wolf in the bed, 'burst out laughing; she knew she was nobody's meat.' Elsewhere, Carter wrote: "I really do believe that a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality (that is, not a logbook of events) can help to transform reality itself. 'Fairy tales remind us that we are so very hungry; the human appetite for other humans is insatiable, and Carter embraces hunger. A little bit of something wild does you good.' "

(I recommend reading Rundell's article, "The Greatest Literary Wolves," in full.)

Little Red Riding Hood by Adrienne Segur

My other favorite wolf story of recent years is Sarah Hall's finely-crafted novel The Wolf Border, about the re-introduction of wolves on a vast estate on the border of Cumbria and Scotland. This is a contemporary, largely Realist story with one slight fantasy element: in Hall's fictional world, the Scottish Referendum of 2014 has ended with Scottish independence. I admit that it took me a while to warm to the novel's protogonist, zoologist Rachael Caine, a damaged and damaging character -- but that, it turns out, is the point of the book. Rachael's emotional journey, paired with the saga of her wolves, is beautifully rendered, and I loved this book without reservation by the last page and journey's end.

Unlike the wolves of fantasy, Hall's wolves are never more or less than animals, fulfilling naturalist Henry Beston's vision that "the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Wolf photograph by Cole Young

Wolf Thoughts by Jackie Morris

This is not to disparage the wolves of fantasy literature, whose stories satisfy in a wholly different way: they are metaphorical tales exploring our relationship with the wild (for good or ill), and they work on us the way myths and fairy tales work on us: indirectly, symbolically, poetically, and below the level of conscious thought.

"Fantasy," explains Ursula Le Guin, "is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational, but pararational; not realistic but surrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud's terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe....It is a journey into the subconscious mind, just as psychoanalysis is. Like pyschoanalysis, it can be dangerous; and it will change you."

Zar by Igor Oleinikov

The best wolves in fantasy are the ones that haunt your dreams when the book is done: Nighteyes in the Farseer books of Robin Hobb; the feral wizard-wolf at the heart of The Book of Atrix Wolfe by Patricia A. McKillp; the motorcycle-riding shapeshifters in The Evil Wizard Smallbone by Delia Sherman; the wild wolf-raised heroine of The Firekeeper Saga by Jane Lindskold; the mysterious Stephen, raised by wolves, in Alice Hoffman's darkly romantic Second Nature; the deliciously sinister Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken; or the frightening yet alluring beasts in Angela Carter's "The Company of Wolves" (and the movie made from it).

A list of good "wolf fantasy" would also surely have to include: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (winner of the Newbery Medal); Wolf  by Gillian Cross (winner of the Carnegie Medal, based on Little Red Riding Hood); Children of the Wolf by Jane Yolen (based on a real-life "feral children" tale), A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear; Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs; and The Sight by David Clement-Davies (told from a wolf pack's point of view).

Papa Wolf Sings to the Acolytes

For an excellent nonfiction volume on wolves and re-wilding, I highly recommend Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves by the always-wonderful Brenda Peterson, as well as Brenda's true-story book for children: Lobos: A Wolf Family Returns to the Wild. For wolves in myth and folklore, try Wolf by Garry Marvin, which is part of Reaktion Books' marvelous Animal series; and, of course, Clarissa Pinkola Estés' Women Who Run With the Wolves, a good read for folk tales about wolves (and other animals) connected to the "wild woman" archetype.

(Please feel free to recommend your own favourite wolf books in the Comments below.)

The Dreamcatcher by Susan Seddon Boulet and Wolf by Kirill Chelushkin

What to do with all this love? by Chiara Baustista

Barry Lopez points out that benevolent wolves are more common in modern literature than they were in ancient myth and legend:

"I think, somehow, that looking for the wolf-mother [or -father, or steadfast companion] is the stage we are at now in history. If we go back to the time of Lycaon and follow the development of the wolf image through the Dark and Middle Ages to the present, the overriding impression is that of a sinister creature. But [now], whether out of guilt or because we have reached such a level of civilization as to allow us the thought, we are looking for a new wolf. We seem eager to be corrected, to know how wrong our ideas about wolves have been, how complex the creature really is, how ultimately unfathomable. What we are looking for, I think, is a way to return mystery to the animals, and distance and selfhood, and thereby dignity.

"Almost like errant children, we seem to want forgiveness from the wolves. And I think that takes great courage.

Wolf Boy by Danielle Barlow

"It may be reasonable to expect most people to dismiss the notion of a nurturing wolf as a naive person's referent," Lopez adds, "but that doesn't seem wise to me. When, from the prisons of our cities, we look out to the wilderness, when we reach intellectually for such abstractions as the privilege of leading a life free from nonsensical conventions, or one without guilt or subterfuge -- in short, a life of integrity -- I think we can turn to wolves. We do sense in them courage, stamina, and a straightforwardness of living; we do sense that they are somehow correct in the universe and we are still at odds with it.

"As our sense of sharing the planet with other creatures grows -- and perhaps that is ultimately the goal of natural history -- the deep contemplation of wolves may be seen as part of an attempt to nurture the humbler belief that there is more to the world than mankind."

Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of Mythic Arts as well.

Tales of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin

The Wolf Border and The Wolf Wilder

Little Evie in the Wildwood by Catherine Hyde

Pictures: The art above is: "Wolf Warrior" by Susan Seddon Boulet, a leaping wolf on gold by Jackie Morris, "Pope Trixie & the Wolves" by Tricia Cline, "Papa Wolf & Tree" by Tricia Cline, "Exile of the Wolf" by Tricia Cline, "Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Gray Wolf" by Viktor Vasnetsov, "Ivan & the Wolf" by Ivan Bilibin, "Little Red Riding Hood" by Gustave Doré, "Little Red Riding Hood "by Adrienne Segur, a grey wolf photographed by Cole Young, "Wolf Thoughts" by Jackie Morris, "Zar" by Igor Oleinikov, "Papa Wolf Sings to the Acolytes" by Tricia Cline, "The Dreamcatcher" by Susan Seddon Boulet, "Wolf" by Kirill Chelushkin, "What to do with all this love?" by Chiara Baustista,"Wolf Bloy" by Danielle Barlow, "Tales of the Firebird" by Gennady Spirin, bedside reading, and "Little Evie in the Wildwood" by Catherin Hyde.

Words: The passages by Barry Lopez are from his ground-breaking book Of Wolves and Men (Scribners, 1978); the passage by Katherine Rundell is from her article "The Greatest Literary Wolves"  (The Telegraph, September 2015). Both are recommended. All rights to the art and text above are reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: A skulk of foxes, Following the bear, The folklore of rabbits & hares, and The sacred pig.


The birdsong wilderness

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

From "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I have absolutely no idea when I first read or heard the tale of Sleeping Beauty. I don't even remember (as I do for some stories) the illustrations, or the language, of a certain edition. I certainly read it for myself as a child in several collections, and again in various forms when I was reading aloud to my own children. One of those versions was a charming Czech-made book, an early example of the pop-up genre; it was good magic, the way the thorny rose-hedge leapt up around the paper castle. And at the end everybody in the castle woke, just as they ought to do, and got right up off the page. But when did I first learn that that was what they ought to do?

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman"The Sleeping Beauty is one of those stories that I've 'always known,' just as it's one of those stories 'we all know.' I wasn't aware that it held any particular meaning or fascination for me until, along in my sixties, I came on Sylvia Townsend Warner's evocation of the tale in a tiny poem (it is in her Collected Poems):

  The Sleeping Beauty woke:
  The spit began to turn,
  The woodman cleared the brake, 
  The gardener mowed the lawn.
  Woe's me! And must one kiss
  Revoke the silent house, the birdsong
  wilderness?

"As poetry will do, those words took me far beyond themselves, straight through the hedge of thorns, into the secret place. For all its sweet brevity, the question asked in the last two lines is a total 'revisioning' of the story, a subversion of it. Almost, it revokes it.

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

"The pall of sleep that lies upon the house and grounds is supposedly the effect of a malicious spell, a curse; the prince's kiss that breaks the spell is supposed to provide a happy ending. Townsend Warner asks, was it a curse, after all? The thorn-hedge broken, the cooks growling at their cook-pots, the peasants laboring again at their sowing or harvesting, the cat leaping upon the mouse, Father yawning and scratching his head, Mother jumping up sure the servants haven't been misbehaving while she was asleep, Beauty staring in some confusion at the smiling young man who is going to carry her off and make her a wife -- everything back to normal, everyday, commonplace, ordinary life. The silence, the peace, the magic, gone.Sleeping Beauty by Roberto Innocenti

"Really, it is a grand, deep question the poet asks. It takes me into the story as no Freudian or Jungian or Bettleheimian reduction of it does. It lets me see what I think the story is about.

"I think the story is about that still center: 'the silent house, the birdsong wilderness.'

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"That is the image we retain. The unmoving smoke about the chimney top. The spindle fallen from the motionless hand. The cat asleep near the sleeping mouse. No noise, no bustle, no busyness. Utter peace. Nothing moving but the slow, subtle growth of the thorn bushes, ever thicker and higher all about the boundary, and the birds who fly over the high hedge, singing, and pass on. It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"Childhood, yes. Celibacy, virginity, yes. A glimpse of adolescence: the place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don't wake me. Don't know me. Let me be. At the same time she is probably shouting out the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh hurry up and come! And she lets her hair down and the prince comes thundering up, and they get married, and the world goes on. Which it wouldn't do if she stayed in the hidden corner and renounced love marriage childbearing motherhood and all that.

Lady in the Meadow by Kinuko Y. Craft

"But at least she had a little while by herself, in that house that was hers, the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

A detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series

Pictures: Four Sleeping Beauty illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman and one by Roberto Innocenti, three panels from the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Lady in a Meadow" by Kinuko Y. Craft, "Woman & Fox" by Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, and a detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series. Words: The passage above is from "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, Second Expanded Edition, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books/Random House, 2002). In the essay, Le Guin goes on to discuss the ways in which her story "The Poacher" was inspired by the fairy tale and Sylvia Townsend Warner's poem.

Related posts, on Sleeping Beauty: Enchanted Sleep, Fairy Blessings, and The 13th Fairy. On Sylvia Townsend Warner: Hen wives, spinsters, and Lolly Willowes.


The stories we choose

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (author of Practical Magic, Second Nature, The Story Sisters, etc.):

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I shivered. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold).

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

Sleeping Beauty by Mercer Mayer

"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 journeys 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?

The Wild Swans and The Goose Girl by Mercer Mayer

"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 Frog Prince by Mercer Mayer

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller. For me, there was no examined life without an imagined life. Just as a person is more exposed by his dreams than by his casual conversation, the imagination reveals more about one's soul than the concrete. My impulse as a beginning writer was not to write about my own life but to create another life entirely.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"I wasn't able to recall how I moved from 'reader' to 'writer' (How did it come about? Why did it happen?) until the day some years ago when I was cleaning out my mother's house because she'd become too ill to live at home. I found a loose-leaf folder in which I had busied myself during grade-school classes by inventing various new identities for myself. Everything about the characters was written down, much like that tried-and-true exercise for writers who wish to create 'real' characters: Write everything down; know the people inside out -- their favorite songs and colors, what they like to eat for lunch, whom they love, where they've traveled, what they yearn for in the future, what they fear most. Know who they are. It seems right that I began my career by creating a series of false identities. Did I have an unhappy childhood? It goes without saying. Did I long to escape it? Absolutely. I did so not by walking out the door, but by reading.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

"The world of the imagination had the greatest emotional value for me as a reader and writer. What I knew, what I experienced came through those black marks on white paper, and that imagined life seemed much more real to me than the one I had actually led. Eventually, the two bled together; my reading life and my real life became one. I found subtexts not only in the stories I read, but in the lives being lived around me. A description of the here-and-now would not do. Not if there was a soon-will-be and a once-upon-a-time.

"Fairy tales, it is believed, began as stories told by women. They were 'kitchen tales,' remembered and repeated by grandmothers through the generations, later retold and written down by men such as the Grimm brothers, but still called "Household Tales." How marvelous that such fabulous stories had such a down-to-earth name, for that is what they are: Tales meant to reveal the subtext of our households and explain us to ourselves, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, beloved and lover. Real life indeed, although they stray as far from realism as possible."

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Mercer Mayer

The imagery today is by American book artist Mercer Mayer, creator of over 300 books for children. Mayer grew up in Arkansas and Hawaii, studied at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Art Student League in New York, and published his first book, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog, in 1967. Today, he's best known for his "Little Critter" series, and for beautiful fairy tale editions including The Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Favorite Tales from Grimm, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Beauty and the Beast by Mercer Mayer

 The passage above is from "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 20004). All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The books that shape us, Once upon a time, The road between dreams and reality, Fairy tales and fantasy, and Threads and stories.


The eye and ear are different listeners

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In one of the essays published in her seminal book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen explores the metamorphosis of folk and fairy tales from the oral tradition to the printed page, noting that there are strengths in each but also indelible differences:

"The eye and the ear are different listeners. Each storyteller has the ability to select: to select those characters who are just right, to select those details that set the stage, to select the glass mountain that must be climbed, the thorny bush that must be passed or the ring or sword or crown to be won. The storyteller is an artist, and selection is essential to art. There are thousands upon thousands of characters, thousands upon thousands of details, thousands upon thousands of motifs. To know which one to chose requires a kind of magical touch, and that is what characterizes the great storytellers.

Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners. The modern audience is not the same as the ancient one, and for a good reason. Ancient man took in the world by listening, and listening meant remembering. Thus humans both shaped and were shaped by the oral tradition. The passage of culture went from mouth to ear to mouth. The person who did not listen well, who was tone deaf to the universe, was soon dead. The finest rememberers and the most attuned listeners were valued: the poets, the storytellers, the shamans, the seers. In culture after culture, community after community, the carriers of the oral tradition were honored. For example, in ancient Ireland the ollahms, the poet-singers, were more highly thought of than the king. The king was only given importance in times of war.

"An anthropologist friend of mine once observed that people in preliterate cultures that are still more of the ear than the eye say, 'I hear you,' when they mean they understand something. But we say, 'I see.' We modern listeners see life more clearly through pictures. We trust the picture more than the spoken word. A picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. In the last century we created the moving picture and credit it, more than anything else, with shaping our children's thoughts.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

Three illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

"But the eye and ear are different listeners, are different audiences. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art. Just as the art of typography has been called 'the art invisible,' subliminal in the sense that it changes or manipulates a reader's perceptions without advertising its own presence, so, too, the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate.

"It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

I've been focusing on oral storytelling in recent posts -- not because I think that those of us creating mythic fiction and poetry must immediately drop our pens and start performing our work, but because there is much we can learn from this ancient art -- particularly when it comes to stories born in the edgelands between the human and more-than-human worlds.

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman

Little Red Riding Hood by Trina Schart Hyman


Even David Abram, that great champion of oral culture, doesn't suggest we give up the printed word:

"For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines," he writes, "a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.

"Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs -- letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

That's a task worth doing, and the Mythic Arts field is a perfectly good place to do it.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

The imagery today is by American book artist Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004), born in Philadelphia and raised in rural Pennsylvania. She often credited her mother will instilling her love of stories, especially myths and fairy tales. "I figured out at four years old that somebody had made the pictures in my books," she said, "and though I didn’t know what these people were called, I knew I wanted to be a book illustrator." 

Trina studied at the Philadelphia Museum Collage of Art, the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and then went on to illustrate over 150 books over 30 years in the field. She received the Caldecott Medal (for Saint George and the Dragon) and was awarded Caldecott Honors three times, among many other honors. Sadly, she died much too young (from the complications of breast cancer), but her work lives on to enchant and inspire new generations of readers.

Rapunzel by Trina Schart Hyman

Touch Magic by Jane Yolen

The passages above are from Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, 2000), and The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), both highly recommended. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.

Related posts: Tough magic, Stepping over the threshold, The Enclosure of Childhood and Words that matter.


An apprenticeship to story

Grey Wethers by Simon Blackbourn

I've been following a thread over the last two weeks leading into the magical heart of story: the stories we tell, the stories we write, and the stories in the land around us. David Abram spoke on the relationship between story and place, Martin Shaw on stories for our time and stories that carry the tang of wild, Robin Wall Kimmerer on listening to the stories the land tells about itself, and David Whyte on finding poetry in close attention to the world around us. Now I'd like to give you one last passage from Martin Shaw's book Scatterlings, describing the path he followed to become the extraordinary storyteller, mythographer and cultural historian of Dartmoor that he is today:

"It was a labour born and rooted entirely in my openings in the wilds," Martin writes. "There were no courses to attend, no elocution lessons, no lines of ink to memorise till I could scattergun the first row with my literary recital of the oral tradition. It just wasn't going to come from there. At least not at first. It had to come from the source: the living world....

Grey Wethers Stone Circle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So, as a young man I took myself out to a little stretch of old-growth wood, mostly oak and elder, and dug in. If myth really was the power of a place speaking, the I had to bend my head daily to its murmurs.

Scorhill Clapper Bridge by Simon Blackbourn

"The vast majority of time I spent over those years outdoors was not in full voice but in listening. A kind of tenderising of the heart. A shaggy equilibrium painfully wrought, where I felt and could maintain the sensation of being flooded by a place. Not an emptying but a filling. And as the weeks would unfold, this roving ecosystem gradually settled in shape somewhat; out of the ravenous floods cascading through my frame, things calmned, and the few same animals, birds, and insects as well as, occasionally, certain regal energies that stand alongside them, started to show up.

On Sittaford Tor by Simon Blackbourn

"The time for this work was usually dusk. I would wait for a frittering of delicate lights to lace the air; they would denote whether it was time to settle back on my goatskins or to cross the rickety bridge and make my way back up the hill to my tent. This kind of vagabond sit took place hundreds of times over those years. I was in the presence of mighty things, and, in their way, they presented me with the big thoughts, over and over.

Zig Zag by Simon Blackbourn

"This is weft and the weave of story for me. The endless lyrical emerging of the earth's tremendous thinking and the humbling required to simply bear witness to it. And the extraordinary day, when for an hour or so you realise that you too are being witnessed. You are part of the big sound. You have pushed the coats aside and walked through the back of the wardrobe.

View from Hound Tor

"When my mouth had chewed on enough silence and my body had located its fragility in the face of winter, when darkness and sorrow had bruised up against solitude, I began to taste, fully, the price of my labour, and slowly I began to speak. And what came was praise.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Inventive speech appears to be a kind of catnip to the living world. Especially prized has been the capacity to name, abundently and gracefully, dozens or even hundreds of secret names for beings you had spent your whole life strutting past, and muttering: willow, holly, bat, dog-rose. They are not their names. Not really.

Sentinels by Simon Blackbourn"So the first big move was not one of taking anything at all -- I'd done that quite successfully my whole life -- but of actually reorganising the detritus of my speech to formulate clear and subtle praise for the denizen I beheld in front of me. Not 'the Goddess of the River' but 'River Goddess.' The moment I squeezed 'of the' into the mix, thereby hovered an abstraction, and the fox-woman fled the hunter's hut.

  Green Curve
  Udder of the Silver Waters
  The Hundred Glittering Teeth
  Small Sister, Dawning Foam,
  On the Old Lime Bank.

This wasn't even particularly imaginative. It wasn't flattery.
And most of all, it wasn't for me. I wasn't comparing myself. It was simply describing, acutely, what I witnessed in front of me. Some things I realised I was never going to behold clearly. I wouldn't have language for butterfly, birch, ivy, and clay. There it is; they remain indistinct. Admired, but indistinct. But, grindingly slowly, some beings made themselves known to me, became a lintel overhead, a den in which I could claim a degree of kinship. Not what I would choose, but what chose me.

The Lone Tree bySimon Blackbourn

"So the first part of my apprenticeship to story began in a tiny stretch of woodland glade -- a corral of about twenty feet -- tenderising my own nature until the beings that wished stepped forward, and gave me the slow and halting opportunity to name just a few of the hundred secret ways they have of being themselves. Maybe four thousand years ago they weren't so secret...

Black-a-tor by Simon Blackbourn

"If I'd believed the propoganda of our times, I would have seen England as too farmed, too crushed-tight with humans and their history, soil too poisoned, forest too hurt and impoverished for such an education -- better to turn to the vastness of Siberia or some other pristine wilderness. Thank God I didn't. The eye of the needle is everywhere, abiding patiently for you to quilt your life to the Otherworld, which is really our deep natural function anyway. Small pockets of absolute aliveness, greenness, riven-deep mystery are all over our strange and bullishly magnificent isle.

Highland Cattle on Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"So my first move towards story was to give one up, beginning the slow move from a society of taking to a culture of giving. The living world was not there for my temporary edification or a transitory backdrop for my 'healing'; it was home. A home that scared me, rattled me, soothed me, shaped me. Without the investment of time and focus, the words I longed to speak would simply be phony on my tongue. The worst aspect of storytelling is when you hear the words spoken but know the teller never took the journey to get them. The teller just squatted by the well and stole the words when one who had made the journey crawled out of the Underworld. 

The Freedom of the Moor by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River Flowing Over Dartmoor by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, I sure wasn't much of a teller at that point, but I knew I had river mud on my boots and green vines in the wine of my blood."

* * * * *

Scorhill Tree by Simon Blackbourn

Once again, I have paired Martin's words with Simon Blackbourn's evocative Dartmoor imagery. Simon is a photographer and moorland wanderer who lives down the road from me here in Chagford. You'll find more of his work in this previous post, as well as on his Instagram page. The title of each photograph can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) 

Both words and pictures have caused me refect on my own long apprenticeship to story...which was different to Martin's in many ways, but oddly similar in others. It was not an easy path by any means, but it's brought to place I am now, to hill and hound and husband and family. It gave me the tales I hold, and carry gently, and then pass on.

Sunset at Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

Delilah by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: The mnemonics of words (Robert Macfarlane) and In the story made of dawn (David Abram).


The tang of fox

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

As must be evident from my last post, I've been re-reading Scatterlings by storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw -- and finding it just as rich, insightful, and magical as I did the first time around. Martin, who grew up a stone's throw from Dartmoor, runs the West Country School of Myth on the other side of the moor from us, and is soaked in the mythic history of the West Country through and through. In the pages of Scatterlings, he rambles the moor, shares its lore, and describes an apprenticeship in storytelling that is earthy, tricksy, and rooted firmly in the land. His work is geared to storytellers working in the old oral tradition, but it has much to say to those of us writing land-based fiction and nonfiction too.

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

The passage from the book that I'd like to share today begins with a story:

"Once upon a time," he writes, "there was a lonely hunter. One evening, returning to his hut over the snow, he saw smoke coming from his chimney. When he entered the shack, he found a warm fire, a hot meal on the table, and his threadbare clothes washed and dried. There was no one to be found.

Nun's Cross Farm by Simon Blackbourn

"The next day, he doubled back early from hunting. Sure enough, there was again smoke from the chimney, and he caught the scent of cooking. When he cautiously opened the door, he found a fox pelt hanging from a peg, and a woman with long red hair and green eyes adding herbs to a pot of meat. He knew in the way that hunters know that she was Fox-Woman-Dreaming, that she had walked clear out of the Otherworld. 'I am going to be the woman of this house,' she told him.

"The hunter's life changed. There was laughter in the hut, someone to share in the labour of crafting a life, and, in the warm dark when they made love, it seemed the edges of the hut dissolved in the vast green acres of the forest and the stars.

Christmas Day Rainbow by Simon Blackbourn

"Over time, the pelt started to give off its wild, pungent scent. A small price, you would think, but the hunter started to complain. The hunter could detect the scent on his pillow, his clothes, even his own skin. His complaints grew in number until one night the woman nodded, just once, her eyes glittering. In the morning she, and the pelt, and the scent were gone. It is said that to this day the hunter waits by the door of his hut, gazing over snow, lonely for even a glimpse of his old love.

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

"We are that hunter, socially and, most likely, personally. The smell of the pelt is the price of real relationship to wild nature: its sharp, regal, undomesticated scent. While that scent is in our hut there can be no Hadrian's Wall between us and the world.

"Somewhere back down the line, the West woke up to the Fox Woman gone. And when she left, she took many stories with her. And, when the day is dimming and our great successes have been bragged to exhaustion, the West sits, lonely in its whole body for her. For stories are more than just a dagger between our teeth. More than just a bellow of conquest. We have turned our face away from the pelt. Underneath our wealth, the West is a lonely hunter.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

"Around halfway through the last century, something wonderful happened. Mythology and faerie tales regained a legitimacy amongst adults as a viable medium for understanding the workings of their own psychological lives. By use of metaphor, tales of sealskins and witches' huts became the most astonishing language for what seemed to lurk underneath people's everyday encounters. The use of metaphor granted greater dignity and heightened poetics to the shape of their years.

"What was the glitch that lurched alongside? A little too much emphasis on these stories as entirely interior dramas that, clumsily handled, became something that removed, rather than forged, relationship to the earth. The inner seemed more interesting than anything going on 'out there.' We and our feelings still squatted pretty happily at the center of the action. There was not always that sharp tang of fox.

Resting by Simon Blackbourn

"When the Grimms and others collected folktales, they effectively reported back the skeletons of stories; the local intonation of the teller and some regional sketching out was often missing. Ironically, this stripped-back form of telling has been adopted into the canon as a kind of traditional style that many imitate when telling stories -- a kind of 'everywhere and nowhere' style.

Bog Cotton on Branscombe Loaf by Simon Blackbourn

"Now, while it's certainly true that there are stories designed for travel, for thousands of years even a story arriving in an entirely new landscape would be swiftly curated into the landscape of its new home. It would shake down its feathers and shape-leap a little or grow silent and soon cease to be told. No teller worth his or her salt would just stumble through the outline and think it was enough; the vivid organs would be, in part, the mnemonic triggers of the valley or desert in which the story now abided. This process was a protracted courtship to the story itself. It was the business of manners.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

"Oral culture has always been about local embedding, despite the big human dilemmas that cannot help but sweep up between cultures. This may seem an unimportant detail when you are seeking only to poke around your childhood memories in a therapist's office, but it falls woefully short when this older awareness is reignited -- the absence of wider nature becomes acute, the tale flat and self-centered.

"I don't think we have the stories; the stories have us. They charge vividly through our betrayals, illicit passions, triumphs, and generosities. Pysche is not neatly contained in our chest as we scuttle between appointments; we dwell within psyche: gregarious, up close, chaotic, astonishing, sometimes tragic, often magical.

Dartmoor Foal by Simon Blackbourn

"Well, something piratical is happening. It is time to rescue the stories, rehydrate the language, scatter dialectic inflection amongst the blunt lines of anthropological scribbles, and muck up the typewriter with the indigo surge of whale ink. We're singing over the snow to the fox-woman."

As, indeed, we are -- in hedgerow storytelling and nature writing; in mythic arts and land-based fantasy fiction; in paint, puppetry, music and other mediums; in creative forms of environmental activism; and in the stories we craft of our lives.

Scorhill Stone Circle by Simon Blackbourn

I Am Sheep by Simon Blackbourn

Lone Tree at Fox Tor Mires by Simon Blackbourn

The very beautiful art today is by Simon Blackbourn, who lives and works here in Chagford. He has spent the last ten years immersing himself in Dartmoor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To me, this is the perfect pairing with Martin Shaw's words, for both of them illuminate the soul of the moor through the mediums of language and light.

To see more of Simon's photographs, please visit his Instagram page. The title of each piece here can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images.) 

Brent Tor by Simon Blackbourn

View from Greater Rocks, Hound Tor by Simon Blackbourn

The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.

Related posts: A skulk of foxes, Fox stories, and Making sense of the more-than-human world.


The stories we need

River 1

From Scatterlings by Martin Shaw:

"We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story -- some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

River 2

"So, here's my first moment of rashness: I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they're not simple, neat, or painless. I also think this urge for a new story is the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the earth actually speaking through words again, more than through some shiny, new, never-considered thought. We won't get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.

River 3

River 4

"No matter how unique we think our own era, I believe that these old tales -- faerie tales, folktales, and myths -- contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-jagged times. And what's more, they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-rattled individual, but have passed through the breath of countless number of oral storytellers.

River 5

"Second thought: The reason for the purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just -- as is widely reported -- the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when our innate capacity to consume (lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas) was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call 'Wild Land Dreaming.'

River 6

"We met something mighty. We didn't just dream our carefully individuated thoughts: We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins.

River 7

River 8

River 9

"Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll his eyes, stomp his boot, and vigourously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment's question of a story's origin.

River 10

"In a time when the land and sea suffer by our very directive, could it not be that the stories we need contain not just a reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, powerful, reflective earth?

River 11

"It is an insult to archaic cultures to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm or gazing at a copse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. To make such a suggestion implies a baseline of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship.

River 12

"It places full creative impetus on the human, not on the sensate energies that surround and move through them. It shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening; it shuts down that big old word animism.

River 13

"Maybe the ancient storyteller knew something we've forgotten."

River 14

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Words: The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Secrets from the Center of the World by Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, with photographer Stephen Strom (University of Arizona Press, 1989). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Chagford stretch of the River Teign, as it runs from the heights of Dartmoor to the sea.

Related posts: Trailing stories (with Martin Shaw), The love of poets, Working with words, and The storyteller's art.