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HISTORY, MYSTERY & MAGIC: Exploring the dreaming spires of Oxford

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

This year we began our History, Mystery & Magic retreat in the Cotswolds with an afternoon spent exploring Oxford, the city of dreaming spires. That very phrase gives me a shiver of delight! 

We went to see an amazing exhibition of the Bodleian Library's greatest treasures, including hand-written letters by Jane Austen, the journal written in turn by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley after their elopement, a locket with small tendrils of their hair, the original hand-drawn cover of The Lord of the Rings with Tolkien's instructions to the printers in the margins, a copy of the Magna Carta ... too much to describe in a single blog post. My favourite exhibits were all the letters and manuscripts written in the author's own hand ... there is something so awe-inspiring and magical about seeing their unique idiosyncratic style and nothing that their hand had touched tat paper. 

We walked the streets and took in the sights ... 

T our very great delight, we were then showed a door in Oxford which may have inspired C.S. Lewis to invent Narnia. A wooden face is carved on the door - it is a Green Man (one of my own personal obsessions) but arguably can be see to look a little like the face of a lion. Just down the road is an old-fashioned iron lantern-posy, and - most exciting of all - two smiling gilded fauns hold up the lintel. 

Apparently ... the story goes ... he walked down this laneway one snowy winter's afternoon, and saw the faun and the lamppost and the carved lion's head, and his imagination sparked ....

(Thank you to the internet for this atmospheric snowy picture of St Mary's Passage - I couldn't find the original photographer so thank you to them as well!) 

We visited Blackwell's and bought books, then enjoyed high tea on the rooftop terrace of the Ashmolean ... (no cucumber sandwiches, to my disappointment) but utterly delicious lemon macaroons and scones with jam and clotted cream.

This is the view from the top of the Ashmolean - I love the glimpse of meadows and fields behind the church spire.

Then we made my annual pilgrimage to the iconic Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings (J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis &  friends) used to meet every Tuesday evening for a pint and a read-aloud of their stories. These are the authors who helped shaped my imagination, and who introduced me to worlds of shadowy enchantment. To sit where they once sat, to touch my hands where their hands once touched ... it never fails to move me. 




Why I Love Fairy Tale Retellings

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I have loved fairy tales since I was a little girl. 

I was first given a book of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ when I was seven, and in hospital. I had been cruelly savaged by a dog as a baby and spent the first ten years of my life in and out of hospital, suffering high fevers and seemingly endless operations to repair a damaged tear duct. 

Reading that book of fairy tales were such an escape for me, and yet, also a comfort.
I could imagine myself riding a winged horse, soaring free of my narrow white hospital bed, escaping to have marvellous adventures somewhere else. 

The world of fairy tales was filled with beauty and mystery and romance and strangeness, all the things my hospital ward was lacking. In fairy tales, blinded princes were healed as I wished to be. In fairy tales, imprisoned maidens won their way free. 

I read that collection of fairy tales to tatters, and was always hungry for more. 

One day, when I was about ten, I discovered a book called The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon on my school library bookshelf. I began reading it as I walked home from school and was instantly entranced. It’s a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale and is full of charm and whimsy. I was so engrossed I walked straight past the end of my street and could possibly have kept on walking for miles, if a neighbour had not driven past and honked me back to the real world. 

That book has been such a talisman for me all of my life that I named my own daughter Eleanor (after the writer), nicknamed Ella for short (after the heroine). 

That book began my love of fairy tale retellings. A year or so later, I read The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray, a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ told from the point of view of the witch’s cat. Of all the fairy tales I loved, ‘Rapunzel’ one resonated with me the most – perhaps because I too had been a young girl locked away from the world, longing for escape, perhaps because the injuries to my eye meant that for long periods of time, I was half-blind and in pain, as the prince had been.

I began to imagine writing my own retelling of Rapunzel before I had even finished reading the book. I love The Stone Cage, and Nicholas Stuart Gray is, I think, one of the greatest children’s writers ever. Nonetheless, I needed my own retelling of the tale to be from Rapunzel’s point of view, and to give some sense of the terrible loneliness, fear and despair she must have endured. 

When I was twelve or thirteen, I read When We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis. I had found it on my great-aunt’s bookshelf while staying there one summer, and I read the whole book, cover to cover, while lying on the floor on my stomach behind her over-stuffed tapestry armchair. It was an utter revelation. Dark and strong and full of anger, it showed how well-known tales – in this case, the story of Cupid and Psyche – could be turned utterly inside-out when told from the point of view of the supposed villain of the tale. 

I began to imagine writing part of my own Rapunzel retelling from the point of view of the witch. She had always puzzled me. Why had she wanted to lock Rapunzel in the tower? What happened to her after the story ended? 

As I grew up I devoured the work of Robin McKinley, reading her wonderful retellings Rose Daughter, Spindle’s End, Beauty and Deerskin. I also loved Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, North Child by Edith Pattou (also published as East), and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. 

Then I read Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, the first time I had read a retelling of a fairy tale written for adults. I knew at once that was what I wanted to do – write a retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ for an adult audience.

For me, it was always a story about sexual desire and power. I never understood how it could be told as a pretty bedtime story for little children, with pictures of a smiling girl combing her hair in a tiny tower wreathed with roses. I knew, gut-deep, that Rapunzel was a far darker story.

So I began to think seriously about my own retelling. It took me seven years to write Bitter Greens – a powerfully symbolic number in fairy tales – and the book ended up very different to how I had first imagined it. As well as telling the story from the point of view of the maiden in the tower, and the witch who put her there, I also tell the story of the woman who first wrote the tale – the utterly fascinating 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.

So why do I love such retellings? Because they illuminated the dark and hidden depths of fairy tales, the most mysterious and magical of all narratives.  

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