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BOOK REVIEW: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Wednesday, August 23, 2017



The Blurb (From Goodreads):

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Thoughts:

A wonderful, magical novel set in a snow-bound village in medieval Muscovy and drawing upon old Russian fairy tales, The Bear & the Nightingale is a brilliant debut from Katherine Arden.

The heroine of the tale is a young strong-willed woman named Vasya whose mother has passed on to her certain magical abilities, such as being able to see and converse with the magical spirits of the household. When her father remarries a devout Christian woman, and a new priest begins to preach against the old beliefs, Vasya finds herself the only one who can protect her home from the gathering forces of darkness.

I loved the Russian landscape, with its bitter cold winds and dark impenetrable forests, and the small details of medieval Russian life like the grandmother and children sleeping on top of the clay oven to stay warm. I also loved Katherine Arden’s pure, lyrical writing style. Apparently she is writing another book set in the same world. I cannot wait!

If you're interested in fairy tale retellings, check out this list of some of my favourites.

Please leave a comment, I love to know what you think.

BITTER GREENS: The history of the Rapunzel fairy tale

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

BITTER GREENS, my retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, has won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Fiction in 2015. 

Here, for your delight, is a brief history of the tale ...


Rapunzel is one of the most mysterious and enduring of all fairy tales, telling the story of a young girl sold to a witch by her parents for a handful of bitter green herbs. 


Most people think that the ‘Rapunzel’ story was first told by the Grimm Brothers in the early 19th century, but in fact it is a much older tale than that. There are so many ‘Maiden in the Tower’ stories in cultures all around the world that it has its own classification in the Aarne-Thompson fairytale motif index (Type 310). 

The first known version is from Christian iconography with the story of Saint Barbara. She was a virtuous young girl locked in a tower by her father in the 3rd century. She was tortured for her Christian beliefs but her wounds miraculously healed overnight and when she was beheaded by her father, he was struck by lightning and killed. Most images of her show her with long, flowing, blonde hair, and in one version of the story her hair miraculously burst into flame when her father seized hold of it.

The first appearance of the motif of the ‘hair ladder’ was in a 10th century Persian tale told by Ferdowsi (932-1025 AD), in which a woman in a harem offers to lower her hair to her lover so he can climb up to her. He is afraid he might hurt her and so throws up a rope instead. 

The ‘hair ladder’ reappears in Petrosinella, a literary fairy tale told by a Florentine writer, Giambattista Basile and published in 1634. Basile was living in Venice at the time and so may have heard many tales brought by sailors and merchants from faraway lands. Petrosinella (Little Parsley) is given up to an ogress after her mother steals parsley from the ogress’s garden. The ogress locks Petrosinella up in a tower in the forest, using her hair as a ladder to access the building. Petrosinella escapes with the help of a prince who heard her singing, overcoming the ogress by casting three magical acorns behind her that turn into obstacles that impede the witch and ultimately devour her. 

Sixty years later, the story appears again, this time in France. It is told in 1698 by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force , who has been banished to a convent after displeasing the Sun King, Louis XIV, at his opulent court in Versailles. Locked away in a cloister, much like Rapunzel is in her tower, Charlotte-Rose was among the first writers to pen a collection of literary fairy tales and also one of the world’s first historical novelists. Published under a pseudonym, Mademoiselle X, Charlotte-Rose’s tales became bestsellers and she was eventually able to buy her release.

In Persinette, Mademoiselle de la Force’s version of the tale, the mother conceives an insatiable longing for parsley which her husband steals for her from a sorceress’s garden. When he is caught by the sorceress, the husband promises the sorceress his unborn daughter. The sorceress comes and collects the little girl at the age of seven, names her Persinette, and raises her until she is twelve. Persinette is then locked away in a tower without a door or stair, deep in a forest. 

In time she becomes a woman; the prince hears her singing and chants the rhyme so he can climb up the ladder of hair to her room, where he seduces her. “He became bolder and proposed to marry her right then and there, and she consented without hardly knowing what she was doing. Even so, she was able to complete the ceremony” is how Charlotte-Rose rather coyly describes his seduction. 

Persinette becomes pregnant as a result, and in her naivety betrays herself to the sorceress when she complains about her dress growing tighter. The sorceress is furious. She cuts off Persinette’s hair and banishes her to a far-distant wilderness, then tricks the prince into climbing up the braids to the tower. She then causes him to fall from the tower to the ground, and he is blinded by the thorns that grow about the base of the tower. Persinette bears twins in the wilderness, then finds the prince and heals his eyes with her tears. The sorceress continues to torment them, until the young couple’s courage and tender love for each other move her to mercy and she magically returns them to the prince’s loving family. 

The story was then retold by the German author Friedrich Schulz (1790). His version is almost identical to Mademoiselle de la Force’s, except that he changed the girl’s name to Rapunzel. It was then retold by the Grimm Brothers (1812), becoming less powerful, mysterious and sexually charged with each subsequent edition. For example, Rapunzel betrays the prince by remarking that the witch is much heavier to pull up, rather than by the witch’s realization that Rapunzel is pregnant. 

I love Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s version of the story because of the ardent love affair and the miraculous healing of the prince’s eyes, and also because the heroine takes a more active role than in later versions of the tale. Persinette is imprisoned as a child, but she survives her ordeal, plots her escape, falls in love, and then raises two children on her own. She heals her lover’s wounds with her tears, and she persuades the sorceress to set them free. She becomes a magical agent of healing and salvation, not only for herself and her family, but also for the sorceress. 

I am also fascinated by Charlotte-Rose herself. Strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent, she once rescued her lover from imprisonment by disguising herself as a dancing bear and entering his father’s castle with a travelling troupe of performers. Her stories were among the first literary fairy tales to be published, and her historical novels are known to have been read and enjoyed by Sir Walter Scott, who many attribute with beginning the historical fiction genre. Her most famous novel, The Secret History of Margeurite de Valois (1697), was also a strong influence on Alexander Dumas’s novel The Queen Margot (1854). She was an early feminist who believed passionately in free love and fought to live her own life liberated from the rigid hierarchy and etiquette of the court of Louis XIV. I find it interesting that her own story echoes the themes of Persinette – she is locked away from society by the king, but she wins her freedom by telling stories.

In my novel, Bitter Greens, I have entwined a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale with Charlotte-Rose’s dramatic life story to create a novel of desire, obsession, black magic, and the redemptive power of love. Oh, and Giambattista Basile makes a brief appearance too …


SPOTLIGHT: My notebooks for my novel BITTER GREENS

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My novel BITTER GREENS (a retelling of Rapunzel interwoven with the true life story of the woman who first told the tale) is being studied this semester at the University of Queensland. The class tutor (and one of my all-time favourite writers) Kim Wilkins asked me if it was possible to show the students some of the pages from my notebooks. 

I realised I had never posted about my working techniques for BITTER GREENS, and so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. 

            


I buy a new notebook whenever I begin a new book. Normally, I try and buy something really beautiful and special, but for BITTER GREENS I had been given a pile of plain black notebooks and I thought I had better use those first. 

To make them pretty and special, I stuck images on the front:


       


These are the covers for the notebook devoted to the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in 17th century Paris and Versailles and the abbey of Gercy-en-Brie in the French countryside. The paintings are not of Charlotte-Rose herself, but of anonymous 17th century French ladies that spoke to me somehow. This is the only image I was able to find of Charlotte-Rose de la Force:



This is the cover of my notebook for the scenes set in Renaissance Venice, which tell the story of Margherita (my maiden) and Selena Leonelli (my witch). The image is one of Titian's most famous paintings of the mysterious women who was his muse. It is called 'Woman with a Mirror' and you can see the original in the Louvre (I did!) 

       

The opening pages of my notebook - the pink stick-it note was from a dinner party where I met some Germans who told me the perfect place to set my Rapunzel scenes in the tower - Sirmione in Lake Garda.  I ended up setting this scenes a few miles away at Rocca del Manerba:


       

Some early pages from my notebook.


It is always very important to me that I plan my key turning points as early as possible in the writing process. I try and find the underlying pattern in the story, which is a process I find very exciting and liberating - it helps me know my key emotional beats, and the scenes which I wish to foreshadow early in the story. BITTER GREENS was a complicated story, so I created a graph like this for each of my major characters - seeing where their stories intersected and how many words each section should be. I often change my graph as the story develops and I learn more about my story - in which case, I draw this diagram again and again, as I try to understand the key underpinnings of the story's architecture.  

These are the opening lines of BITTER GREENS, written longhand in my notebook. I often write key scenes longhand first, to slow myself down and think through what I want to say. Typing is an amazing technological breakthrough for writers, but it can lead to quick and facile writing. I like to write slow and deep and thoughtful at times - usually for my most important scenes or when a line or paragraph is causing me trouble and always, always, always, when I am writing poetry.

         

I have a very visual imagination, so I like to be able to "see" things before I describe them. Consequently I am always sticking in maps, diagrams, and photos into my notebooks, or drawing little maps for myself (this sketch is of Margherita's tower)

An early chapter outline

  

Lists of characters

              

Random pages I thought you might find interesting

     

My notebooks are not particularly pretty - my handwriting is awful and my drawings even worse. They are, however, a record of the creative process from the earliest ideas through to the finished product. I date my pages, keep a record of my word counts, and say where I am when I am working on that page (Paris, Venice, Florence and the south of France all feature in these pages.) 

Writing BITTER GREENS was an extraordinary experience for me. No book I have written has ever dug so deeply into who I truly am. 

 I have written a lot on my blog about Bitter Greens - I hope you will go and explore further! Or take a look at my Pinterest pages on Titian's paintings of his muse, Rapunzel  or my inspirational pinboard for BITTER GREENS

But - most of all - I hope you love the book!

SPOTLIGHT: Dortchen Wild, fairy tale teller

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

To celebrate International Women's Day, I thought I would spotlight the real (and unjustly forgotten) historical women whose lives I have drawn upon in my fiction.

Today I am re-posting a blog about Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told the Grimm brothers many of their most famous tales and - after a long and difficult courtship - married Wilhelm Grimm. I drew upon the true events of their forbidden romance to write my novel The Wild Girl

       
      

Sometimes an idea hits you like a sizzling bolt of lightning, and you know that you have to write it.

That’s how the first idea for my novel THE WILD GIRL came to me.

I was reading a scholarly book about the Grimm Brothers’ when I discovered that one of the primary oral sources for their fairy tales was a young woman who had grown up next door to the Grimm family. Her name was Dortchen Wild, and she was only eighteen when she began to tell Wilhelm some of the world’s most beloved stories. 

I was fascinated by this, having always imagined the sources of the tales being hunchbacked old peasant women. Then I discovered that Dortchen and Wilhelm had fallen in love and - many years later – married. I knew at once that I had to tell her story! It was absolutely electrifying. I could hardly sleep that night for excitement.



Discovering Dortchen’s story was not at all easy. Very little of her life was known – only her birth, marriage and death dates (and people even argued about those). Of her own writing, there remained only a few letters and a brief autobiographical sketch that she dictated to her daughter on her death-bed. All I had to give me a sense of her inner life was the stories she told – and when she told them. 

Dortchen grew up next door to the Grimm brothers in the small kingdom of Hessen-Kassel. When she was in her teens and Wilhelm was twenty, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded and the Hessian people were forced to live under French occupation for many years. Hessen-Kassel was mashed together with a number of other small countries to become the Kingdom of Westphalia. Napoleon put his dissolute young brother, Jerome, on the throne. He was only 22, and marked his ascension to the throne by playing leapfrog through the empty palace in his underwear. 

It was a dark and difficult time. Unable to find work, the two eldest boys in the Grimm family decided to collect and study the old wonder tales they had always loved so much. They were too poor to travel about and so asked friends and neighbours to tell them any old stories they knew. That was when they discovered - right next door - an absolute treasure-house of tales, all stuffed inside one young woman’s head.

Dortchen told Wilhelm almost one-quarter of all the stories in the first edition of the Grimm brothers’ ‘Children’s and Household Tales’, published in 1812. She told him ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, and ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. 

On one extraordinary day – 10 January 1812 – she told Wilhelm three stories back-to-back, while huddling about the stove in her sister’s summerhouse so her father would not know.



On 9 October 1812 – the day before the fairy tale collection was sent to the printers – Dortchen told Wilhelm another two tales.  The first was about a good sister who is given the gift of spitting gold coins, while her evil sister who is cursed to spit out snakes and toads. The second was ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a dark and haunting tale about a king who falls in love with his own daughter. 

Dortchen’s own father disapproved mightily of Wilhelm Grimm, and prohibited them from seeing each other. She had to tell Wilhelm her tales in secret. Kept apart by war, poverty, and patriarchal domination, the story of their forbidden romance is as full of drama, heartbreak and triumph as any fairy tale she told. 

I do hope that you will all find her story as fascinating as I did. 








Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think.

SPOTLIGHT: Snow White

Thursday, February 11, 2016







There are many different versions of ‘Snow-White’- one scholar has counted as many as 400!
The oldest seems to be the medieval Norse saga written by the 12th century poet Snorri Sturluson, which sets the tale in the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century. 

The story is called ‘Snow Beauty’, and tells the story of how, one snowy winter’s day, Harald Fairhair fell in love with the most beautiful woman in the world and married her. When Snow-Beauty died, however, her body did not rot and her cheeks were as rosy as they had ever been. The king sat beside her, thinking she would soon come back to life. He sat so for three years, neglecting all his kingly duties, until his wise councillor bade him lift up the dead queen so they could change the bedclothes below her. As soon as she was lifted up, a rank smell of rotting rose with her, the body turned blue, and worms and adders and frogs and toads crawled out. So she was burned, and the king returned to his wits. 

Another tale with similar motifs is ‘The Young Slave’ by the Neapolitan writer Giambattista Basile, written in the early 1600s and published in his ‘Tale of Tales’ collection in 1634. 



A young woman became pregnant after swallowing a rose petal. She sent her daughter, named Lisa, to the fairies to give her good luck charms. However, the last fairy slipped and twisted her foot as she was running to see the child, and uttered a curse against her - when the child was seven, her mother would leave a comb in her hair, from which the child would perish. 

At seven, the child died in this manner. The mother lamented bitterly, and encased the body in seven caskets of crystal, each one within the other, which she put in a distant room and locked, keeping the key in her pocket. When she was dying, she gave the key to her brother, begging him to never open the last room in the house.

The brother was faithful, but when he left on a hunting party, he gave the keys to his wife, telling her not to open the last room. The wife grew suspicious, and opened the forbidden chamber. Lisa had grown into a woman in her sleep, the caskets lengthening with her, and the wife found a beautiful woman hidden in the caskets. Convinced she was her husband's mistress, she opened the caskets and dragged Lisa out by the hair, causing the comb to drop and Lisa to awake. The jealous wife began to beat Lisa, tearing her hair and clothes, giving her bruises all over, and kept her as a slave.

One day the husband was going out of town again, and asked everyone in the household what presents they would like him to bring them, "even the cats." The wife became furious when the husband asked Lisa as well, but the husband insisted it was only courteous to offer Lisa a gift. Lisa demanded a doll, a knife, and a pumice-stone, and added that if the husband forgot them, he would be unable to cross the first river he came to on his return.

The husband did initially forget the gifts, but upon being unable to cross water on his way home, he remembered, and bought the gifts for Lisa. When Lisa had her doll, she began to tell the doll her story, which the husband overheard. Lisa was weeping and sharpening her knife, telling the doll, "Answer me, dolly, or I will kill myself with this knife." The husband, her uncle, kicked down the door and snatched the knife away. He then drove his cruel wife away and gave Lisa a husband of her own choice. 
Of most interest here, in regards to Snow-White, are the poisoned comb and the seven crystal caskets - motifs which later appear in Snow-White. However, this story also shares motifs with Sleeping Beauty (the fairy's curse), Bluebeard (the forbidden room), Cinderella (the girl used as a slave), Beauty and the Beast (requests for gifts) and even the Goose Girl (telling her tale to an inanimate object). 




The tale ‘Little Snow White’ was first recorded by the Grimm brothers in 1808, and sent to a friend in 1810 (the poet Clemens Brentano) (source unknown – but in my novel about the Grimm Brothers - THE WILD GIRL - I give it to the Wild family’s housekeeper Old Marie to tell). 

In this version, there is no huntsman – the Queen takes her daughter into the forest to gather roses and then abandons her there. 

A fuller version of the tale was then collected by the Grimm Brothers from three sisters – Marie, Jeannette and Amalie Hassenpflug - who lived near the brothers in the small town of Cassel. Their version was published in the first edition of tales in 1812. 

The story begins with a queen who sits sewing by the window in winter. She pricks her finger with her needle, causing three drops of blood to fall on to the snow on the black windowsill. Admiring the beauty of the colours, she says to herself, "Oh how I wish that I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony". 



Illustration by Charles Santore from a gorgeous picture book of Snow White 

Soon after that, the Queen gives birth to a baby girl who is named her 'Snow White' for her rare colouring. As the child grows her beauty makes her mother jealous. When Snow-White is seven years old, the queen orders her huntsman to take her daughter into the forest, murder her, and bring back her lungs and her liver to eat. The huntsman is moved by the child’s beauty and terror, and kills a wild boar instead. Snow-White seeks shelter in the house of seven dwarves.

The queen consults her magic mirror:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?
The mirror answered once again:
You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But Little Snow-White is still
a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen makes three attempts to kill her daughter: once with by lacing her bodice too tight, once with a deadly hair comb, and finally with a poisoned apple. 




The dwarves cannot revive her the third time and so they put her in a glass coffin. The prince comes by and falls in love with the dead girl, and insists on taking her everywhere with him. After a long while, one of his servants grows angry and opens the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, "We are plagued the whole day long, just because of a dead girl," and hit her in the back with his hand. ‘Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life.’  


The prince and Snow-White are to be married, and send her mother an invitation to the wedding. 
Wondering who this new princess is, the queen asks: 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

The mirror answered:

You, my queen, are fair; it is true.
But the young queen
Is a thousand times fairer than you.

The queen was horrified to hear this, unable to believe that Snow-White could still be alive. She goes to the wedding to see for herself, and the prince and princess ‘put a pair of iron shoes into the fire until they glowed, and she had to put them on and dance in them. Her feet were terribly burned, and she could not stop until she had danced herself to death.’ 

The Grimms noted there were a few variations to this version. In one, it is a count who wishes for a girl with this combination of colours, and his love for the child makes his wife jealous. In another tale, it is three ravens who fly over who provide the colour black. 

In the next Grimm brothers’ edition, Snow-White’s mother dies at birth and so it is her step-mother that tries to kill her; and the piece of poisoned apple is dislodged when the prince’s servant stumbles over a root. 

When the story was translated into English by Edgar Taylor, he softened the cruelty and violence of the tale, taking out the queen’s desire to eat her step-daughter’s liver and lungs, and changed the ending so the queen choked in her rage rather than being made to dance in red-hot iron shoes. And although Snow-White (called Snow-drop) is still only seven years old, Edgar Taylor describes her lying in her glass coffin ‘a long, long time’ with the inference, perhaps, that she grows up before the prince comes along. 



Illustration by Charles Santore

In 1912, the story was made into a comic Broadway play called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The dwarves were named for the first time: Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, & Quee (the youngest of the seven, at nearly ninety-nine years old) 

Famously the story was then made into Walt Disney's 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dwarves’ names changed; Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy and Sleepy. 

Instead of her lungs and liver, as written in the original, the huntsman is asked by the queen to bring back Snow White’s heart. Snow White is no longer a little girl (though she is still very young-looking). The evil queen tries to kill Snow White only once (by a poisoned apple). Disney also added the famous awakening by the prince’s kiss, while the queen dies by falling down a cliff, after being hit by lightning.

Interestingly, in 1994 a German scholar Eckhard Sander published Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale? He wonders whether the story of Snow White was in any way inspired by the life of Margarete von Waldeck (1513-1534), whom he suspected was poisoned by her jealous step-mother.  



Motifs & Meaning Of The Tale

Snow-White is a resurrection tale, and thus in mythological terms her ‘sleeping death’ can be linked to the idea of the coming of spring and the rebirth of life after the dead of winter.  

The use of the three colours is very striking. Snow White has skin white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as ebony.

Each of these colours has significant symbolic implications and represents a time of life. 

White, representing birth, is for purity, virginity, and innocence. 

Red, representing life, symbolizes blood, in the menstrual flow and the breaking of the hymen and childbirth.

Black, symbolizing death, connotes the absolute and eternity. 

In some interpretations, the bodice-laces, the comb, and the apple are all seen as erotic symbols. 

Certainly, the red apple has always had connotations of sin and the loss of innocence, with its links back to Adam & Eve and the fall. 




The mirror can be seen as a projection of the queen’s unconscious. 

Most Freudian interpretations see the story of Snow-White as the playing out of Oedipal conflicts (called the Electra complex by Jung). Both female characters try to gain the father's affection (although he is absent from the tale). The father raises an unconscious conflict between mother and daughter, because the daughter’s beauty makes her more desirable and so arouses the mother's jealousy which makes her wish to get rid of the daughter. This has been called the Snow White complex. 

Feminist readings of the tale also focus on the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship, with some seeing Snow-White as an image of patriarchy’s ideal female (beautiful, youthful, passive, silent) contrasted against the vigorous, strong-willed, outspoken and vain mother. 

Finally, it can simply be seen as a parable for the dangers of vanity. 
 
Modern Retellings (films)

Snow White (1988). Michael Berz, director.
With Diana Rigg as the Evil Queen and Sarah Patterson as Snow White. 

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012, Rupert Sanders (director), With Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen and Kirsten Stewart as Snow-White. 

Mirror Mirror (also in 2012), stars Julia Roberts as Evil Queen and Lily Collins as Snow White (directed by Tarsem Singh)




Modern Retellings (novels)

Jane Yolen - Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All. 

Carolyn Turgeon - The Fairest of Them All

Gregory Maguire - Mirror, Mirror

Tanith Lee - White as Snow

Gail Carson Levine - Fairest

Adele Geras - Pictures of the Night



If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my posts on The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty 

You can also listen to me talk about Snow White with Natasha Mitchell on Radio National

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK.  

SPOTLIGHT: Fairy Tales Reimagined with Kate Forsyth and Natasha Mitchell

Thursday, February 11, 2016

I've been chatting about the strange, dark history of well-known fairy tales with Natasha Mitchell on ABC Radio National's LIFE MATTERS show over the last four months. 

Here are the links to all the podcasts for your listening pleasure, plus the round-ups I've been posting on the blog. 

Read on  ... if you dare ....




Edward Burne-Jones, 'Sleeping Beauty'


Sleeping Beauty Podcast



My post on THE LITTLE MERMAID





Snow White Podcast

My post on SNOW WHITE




Aya Kato, 'Rapunzel'

Rapunzel Podcast

My post on RAPUNZEL


And the talkback session with me, Natasha and Jack Zipes from last year! 




A Rapunzel poem by Kate Forsyth

Thursday, February 11, 2016

BITTER GREENS, my imaginative retelling of Rapunzel, has won the ALA Award for Best Historical Fiction!

I also studied a Doctorate of Creative arts on the fairy tale, writing a thesis called 'The Rescue of Rapunzel: A Mythic History of the Maiden in the Tower tale,' and a poem, 'In the Tower': 




In the Tower


Walled in my old stone tower
the bitter taste of tears
always in my throat
only a slit to put my eye to
yet how full of change is that sky
I watch the stars wheel past
seasons turning and turning
the one tree on that faraway hill
once more bursts into life
green in the shadows
golden in the light 


Walled in my silent tower
how can I frame the words
to tell my story
my heart is a riddle
green sickness in my soul
loneliness the heaviest burden
how I long to slip free
of this empty shadowed tower
fly on muffled wings like the owl
white against the thorns
black against the moon


Walled in my cold stone tower
I conjure a steed from flame
An invisible cloak from ashes
A frail ladder from cobwebs
I make a dagger from ice
A key from bone and wishes
I spin a song from the silence
One day someone shall sing my refrain
Green in the shadows
Golden in the light


Free of my shadowy tower
We shall bind ourselves together
With tendrils of green
With tresses of gold
We shall build a castle of light and air
And banish silence with song
Together we’ll dance in the forest
White against the thorns
Black against the moon


by Kate Forsyth



SPOTLIGHT - How grim were the Grimms' fairy tales?

Thursday, February 11, 2016



Just how grim are the Grimm tales?

* In the 1812 version of the Grimm’s tale ‘Little Snow-White’, it is the heroine’s own jealous mother that wants her dead. She tells the huntsman to bring back her daughter’s lungs and liver, for her to eat. Wilhelm Grimm later changed the mother to a step-mother.

* The jealous queen was punished by Little Snow-White and her prince by being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes till she died. 

* In the original (1812) version of ‘The Frog King’, the princess does not kiss the frog to change him into a prince. Instead, she throws him as hard as she can against a wall. 

* In ‘Aschenputtel’, the Grimm’s version of ‘Cinderella’, one wicked stepsister cuts off her toes to try and make the slipper fit and the other cuts off her heel. In the end, they have their eyes pecked out by pigeons.

* In a later edition (1857) of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the dwarf tears himself in two when the queen guesses his true name. This detail was added in by Wilhelm, quite possibly because he thought it was funny 

* in one Grimm tale, ‘The Maiden Without Hands,’ a girl’s hands are chopped off by her own father

* The villain of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ is a sorcerer that travels about the countryside, kidnapping girls and hacking them to pieces in a hidden room. 

* In ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, a girl disguises herself in a coat made from the fur flayed from a thousand animals in order to escape the incestuous desires of her father

* in many cases, Wilhelm made the stories more violent – particularly the punishments for witches and evil step-mothers

Nonetheless, nearly all of the tales end happily, with the hero or heroine triumphing because of their courage, goodness, and wit.

My novel THE WILD GIRL tells the astonishing untold story of how the Grimm brothers came to collect their world-famous tales - and the young woman who was their most important source. Its a story of love, war and the redemptive power of storytelling. 

    

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

SPOTLIGHT: A Brief History of Fairy Tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A BRIEF HISTORY OF FAIRY TALES

For your enjoyment ...  a brief history of fairy tales!



Myth, Legend & Fairy Tale

The differences between myth, legend, fairy tale & fable can be can simply described as:

Myths: narratives about immortal or supernatural protagonists
Legends: narratives about extraordinary protagonists
Fairy Tales: narratives about ordinary protagonists
Fables: narratives with animal protagonists which convey a moral


History of Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales have their roots in ancient oral storytelling traditions.
 
All cultures have their own myths & legends. Many fairy tales wear ‘the easy doublet’ of myth.
 
A.D. 100-200, Ancient Greece – “Cupid and Psyche” written by Apuleius 

A.D. 850-860, China - The first known version of “Cinderella” is written


C. 1300 – Troubadours and travelling storytellers spread tales throughout medieval Europe 

C. 1500 - One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded 

1550 & 1553, Italy - Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes The Pleasant Nights - he has been called the 'grandfather of fairy tales'

1600s, Italy - Giambattista Basile writes The Tale of Tales – published posthumously in 1634. This contains 'Petrosinella', the earliest known version of 'Rapunzel' 



1690-1710  - The French Salons invented and played with fairy tales - Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy invented the term 'conte de fées'

1697 France - Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales is published in Paris 

1697 – Charlotte-Rose de la Force publishes her collection which includes the tale we now know of as “Rapunzel”

1740 France - Gabrielle de Villeneuve writes a 362 page version of “Beauty and the Beast”

 1756 France – Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont publishes much shorter version of “Beauty and the Beast” - first tale written specifically for children.



1812 Germany - Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Vol 1 of Childhood and Household Tales

1823 Great Britain - Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of the Grimms' tales in German Popular Stories. The book is illustrated by George Cruikshank

1825 Germany – Grimms’ first edition for children - known as The Small Edition - illustrated by Ludwig Grimm

1835 Denmark - Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children

1889 England - Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book -  the first multicultural fairy tale collection 


1890 Russia - Tchaikovsky's “The Sleeping Beauty” premieres in St Petersburg 

1893 Great Britain - Marian Roalfe Cox publishes her book, Cinderella: Three Hundred and Forty-five Variants of Cinderella, Catskin, and Cap O' Rushes’- the first fairy tale scholarship



1910 Finland - Antti Aarne publishes ‘The Types of the Folktale’. Later, Stith Thompson translates and expands it into English in 1961


1937 United States - Walt Disney's first feature length animated film is released, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



Now – fairy tales have never been hotter! They dominate our TV and movie screens, and influence advertising, music, and fashion. Plus of course ... fairy tale retellings ...



Fairy Tale Tropes
Pure distillation of plot

Setting is anywhere and nowhere

Traditional sentences & archaic language: Once upon a time ... Long long ago … Once, twice, thrice …. 
‘Abstract style’  - dark forest, brave youth, golden bird

Fairy tale numbers and patterns: the numbers 3 & 7 & 13 i.e. the third sister, the thirteenth fairy

Magic & metamorphosis – talking mirror, prince into frog, girl into bear

Binary oppositions i.e. good & evil, rich & poor, beautiful & ugly, strong & weak

Memorable language i.e. rhythm, rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia 

Motifs & metaphors: ‘the language of the night’

Structure – a series of trials & tribulations (often three)

The Fairy Tale ‘happy ending’ .. 

(Though not all fairy tales end happily. Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are very sad, for example) 



FURTHER READING




BOOK LIST: My Seven Favourite Academic Studies of Fairy & Folk tales

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Here are my Favourite Seven Books on Fairy Tales. 


1. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning & Importance of Fairy Tales by Bruno Bettelheim
First published in 1975, this is one of the most important early books on fairy tales. It is stuffed full of ideas, but must be read with a caveat in mind. Bettelheim was a Freudian psychoanalyst which means that some of his interpretations seem very out-of-date nowadays. Also, he was drawing on limited scholarship because he was essentially the man who sparked the later intense academic interest in the subject. His reputation has also been tarnished by his suicide and the accusations of child abuse that followed. Nonetheless, he was a man of vision that helped rescue fairy tales from the dust balls under a child’s bed. He says that fairy tales teach us ‘that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable … but that if one … steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.’ 



2. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of A Genre by Jack Zipes
All of Jack Zipes’s books are eloquent, insightful and cleverly argued, but this is my favourite because it is so accessible to people outside arcane academic circles. He has the ability to communicate clearly and yet with great depth of scholarship. And he is interested in the socio-historical background of the tales as well as what they may mean. He says: ‘As we know, tales do not only speak to us, they inhabit us and become relevant in our struggles to resolve conflicts that endanger our happiness.’
Other books by Zipes that I would thoroughly recommend are The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of A Genre, which builds on Why Fairy Tales Stick; and Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales.


3
. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner
I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I have read it so many times I know parts of it off by heart. It’s a massive work of scholarship that looks at the history and meaning of fairy tales with a strong feminist and revisionist slant. This is a must-read. She says: ‘The marvels and prodigies, the seven-league boots and enchanted mirrors, the talking animals, the heroes and heroines changed into frogs or bears or cats, the golden eggs and everflowing supplies of porridge, the stars on the brow of the good sister and the donkeytail sprouting on the brow of the bad – all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives. The verb ‘to wonder communicates the receptive state of marvelling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire, and as such it defines very well at least two characteristics of the traditional fairy tale: pleasure in the fantatsic, curiosity about the real. The dimension of wonder creates a huge theatre of possibility in the stories: anything can happen. This very boundlessness serves the moral purpose of the tales, which is precisely to teach where boundaries lie.’ 


4. The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales by Sheldon Cashdan 
This book sets out to explore how fairy tales can help children deal with psychological conflicts by projecting their own internal struggles onto the characters in the stories. In this way, Cashdan is building on Bettelheim’s legacy. He divides the stories based upon vices such as vanity, gluttony, deceit, greed and lust, which is interesting but can sometimes be a little simplistic. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read. He says: ‘Beyond the chase scenes and lastminute rescues are serious dramas that reflect events taking place in the child’s inner world. Wheareas the initial attraction of a fairy tale  may lie in its ability to enchant and entertain us, its lasting value lies in its power to help children deal with the internal conflicts they face in the course of growing up.’


5. The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar
Murder, mutilation, cannibalism, infanticide and incest: the darker side of the Grimm fairy tales are examined in this fascinating book. She looks at the countless wicked women in a chapter entitled ‘Stepmothers and Other Ogres’ and the beastly men in ‘Bluebeard and Other Monsters’ – it’s a racy, clever, and intriguing read. She says: fairy tales are up close and personal, mixing fact with fiction to tell us about our deepest anxieties and desires. They offer roadmaps pointing the way to romance and riches, power and privilege, and most importantly, a way out of the woods, back to the safety and security of home.’ 


6. Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral & Social Vision of the Tales by Ruth B. Bottigheimer
First published in 1987, this is a fascinating and insightful look at the history of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, and some of the key motifs and story patterns that emerge. She also examines the various different editions and shows how the Grimm brothers had changed the stories over subsequent editions to better suit their devout, middle-class principles. She says: ‘People tell tales: peasants and artisans, lords and ladies, mothers and fathers, priests and preachers, girls and boys. The literate read aloud, the gifted recount. Over and over people tell tales whose contains seem the same but that nonetheless differs in profound ways.’




7. Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales by Valerie Paradiz
It was this book that inspired me to write my novel ‘The Wild Girl’. It tells the story of the forgotten women who were the primary oral source of the stories the Grimm brothers collected. The book is wonderfully accessible, and draws upon the tales themselves in a way which I think worked wonderfully. She says: ‘Few readers know that more than half of the 210 fairy tales included in the Grimm anthologies had a woman’s hand in them.’ 


I hope you find this post insightful! Please leave a comment - I love to know what you think

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