Retelling Beauty & the Beast

Beauty and the Beast by Kinuko Y Craft

When I first saw Disney Studio's Beauty and the Beast, it was in the company of a five-year-old friend. The film was, of course, a visual delight: the animation was remarkable, the Broadway-musical-style show tunes were lively and witty, the Beast was sufficiently ugly and endearing, and Beauty, bless her, was a rare media heroine who actually reads books. As with many of the best stories for children, my young companion and I both enjoyed the film, even if we were laughing at different jokes. Nonetheless, I found myself disturbed by Disney's treatment of the fairy tale -- specifically, with the liberties taken in changing classic elements of the story. But where, I wondered, do we draw the line between the use and abuse of fairy tales when creating new versions for modern audiences? Fairy tales aren't museum pieces to be preserved under glass, after all -- they are living stories: retold, reshaped, subverted, fractured, turned inside-out and upside-down by storytellers through the centuries. So why did the Disney film seem to me not so much a fresh rendition of the story as a sloppy muddling of it? A look at the history of the tale will give some context to my dismay.

Beauty and the Beast by Adrienne SegurWhile we generally think of fairy tales as anonymous stories handed down from the distant past, Beauty and the Beast, in fact, is a literary work penned by the French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740. De Villeneuve was part of the "second wave" of French fairy tale writers (Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and other salon fairy tale writers comprising the "first wave" fifty years earlier). When she sat down to create Beauty and the Beast, she was influenced by those earlier salonnières, as well by Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche" (The Golden Ass) and the many "animal bride and bridegroom" stories to be found in the folk tradition. Like Madame D'Aulnoy and other salonnières before her, Madame de Villeneuve used the metaphorical language of  fantasy to address issues of concern to the women of her day. Chief among these was a critique of a marriage system in which women could claim few legal rights. They had no right to chose their own husbands, no right to refuse the marriage bed, no right to control their own property, and no right to divorce. Girls of her class were often wed at 14 or 15, given (sometimes virtually sold) to men who were decades older; and unsatisfactory wives could be locked up in mental institutions or banished to a convent. Many of the fairy tale salonnières were sharply critical of such practices, and promoted ideals of love, fidelity, and civilité between the sexes. Their tales reflected the realities they lived with, and their dreams of a better way of life. Their animal-bridegroom stories, in particularly, embodied the real-life fears of women who could be promised to total strangers in marriage, and who did not know if they'd find a prince or a beast in their marriage bed.

(To read more about the salonnières and their fairy tales, go here.)

Beauty & the Beast by Walter Crane

De Villeneuve's Beauty and the Beast, over one hundred pages long and published for adult readers, is somewhat different than the short version of the tale we know today. As the story begins, Beauty's destiny lies in the hands of her father, who gives her over to the Beast (to save his own life) and thus seals her fate. The Beast is a truly fierce figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur -- a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of this tale is on the transformation of the Beast, who must find his way back to the human sphere. He is a genuine monster, eventually reclaimed by civilité, magic, and love -- but it is only after that transformation that Beauty can love him in return. In metaphorical terms, he is the brutal man she's compelled to wed, now repentant and changing his ways.

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast by HJ Ford

Sixteen years later Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French woman working as a governess in England, shortened and rewrote Villeneuve's story, publishing her version in a magazine for well-bred young ladies. She tailored her version for her audience, toning down its sensual imagery and implicit critique of forced marriages. She also pared away much unnecessary fat -- the twisting subplots beloved by Madame de Villeneuve -- to end up with a tale that was less adult and subversive, but also more direct and memorable. In the Leprince de Beaumont version, and subsequent retellings, the story becomes an openly didactic one, with the moral emphasis on Beauty's behaviour. In this version of the tale, it is she who must change. She must learn to see beyond appearance and love the man buried in the Beast, for only this will break the curse and restore the Beast to humanity.

Beauty & the Beast by Warwick Goble

With this shift, we see the story altered from one of proto-feminist critique and rebellion to a moral lesson aimed at young girls. Subsequent versions followed suit, rewritten for younger and younger readers as fairy tales moved from adult salons (where they fell out of fashion) into children's nurseries. By the 19th century, the Beast's monstrous shape is only a kind of costume that he wears; he poses no genuine domestic danger or sexual threat to Beauty, despite keeping her isolated and imprisoned. Even this has been changed in some versions for children: Beauty is free to leave the Beast's castle but kindly chooses to stay, thus honoring her father's rash promise.

Beauty & the Beast by Magaret Tarrant and the unknown illustrator of an 1897 edition

Beauty and the Beast by Charles Robinson

Early in the 19th century, the proliferation of printing presses caused the de Beaumont version of Beauty and the Beast to be widely disseminated in inexpensive chapbook and pamphlet editions, often printed without an author credit to either de Beaumont or de Villeneuve. This is the way that literary tales sometimes slipped sidewise into the folk tradition: oral storytellers took up the best of the fairy stories they found reprinted in chapbooks and pamphets and passed them on as though they, too, were anonymous and ancient.

In her 1989 study Beauty and the Beast (Chicago University Press), Betsy Hearne points out that 19th century retellings brought new elements to Beauty's story. In sumptuously illustrated editions of the period, she is shaped into a more conventional Victorian heroine (passive, dutiful, charitable), and the idea of fate (a metaphysical obsession at that time) is introduced. In the de Villeneuve's story, Beauty goes to the Beast in her father's stead because both law and custom require blind filial obedience; in de Beaumont's version, she gives herself to the Beast as a matter of family honor; but in many Victorian retellings (including the version attributed to Charles Lamb, 1843) her submission to the Beast is an acceptance of the predestined fate that lies before her.

Beauty & the Beast by Edmund Dulac

In the 20th century the story was subtly altered again. In 1909, the French playwright Fernand Nozier wrote and produced a popular adult version of Beauty and the Beast with a fashionable Oriental flavor. Nozier's play is humorous, yet beneath its light surface is a distinctly sexual subtext, exploring the tension between the mind's ideals and the body's desires. In this version, all three sisters find themselves powerfully attracted to the Beast. When Beauty's kiss turns him into a prince she complains: "You should have warned me! Here I was smitten by an exceptional being, and all of a sudden my fiancé becomes an ordinary, distinguished young man!"

Beauty and the Beast (now a prince) by Scott GutavsonIt is a problem that plagues most dramatic representations of the tale: the Beast portrayed so compelling that his princely guise is a disappointment. This happens even in Jean Cocteau's superb film of the story (1946), which nonetheless remains the best dramatic presentation of the tale created to date. Beautifully shot in black-and-white, Cocteau and his co-director, René Clément, blend their Beauty & the Beast's magical motifs with vivid elements of dometic realism. Cocteau strove for what he called "the supernatural within realism," mixing shots of the Beast's enchanted castle with chickens pecking on the ground and other glimpses of ordinary life, skillfully grounding his fairy story within the natural world we know. The film was made in France after World War II -- a time when post-war blackouts and equipment shortages were daily problems, and when the idea of filming a fairy tale struck many as shockingly trivial. But Cocteau avoids triviality through a deep understanding of his source material, and an almost fanatical attention to the details of lighting and design. In Beauty and the Beast: Diary of a Film, he wrote that he aimed for "the clean, sculptured line of poetry instead of the usual diffuse lighting and use of gauze for magical effect."  The resulting film has stood the test of time, and become a classic of the art.

From Cocteau's Beauty & the Beast

Although Cocteau's fairy tale film can be watched by children, the subtext is adult, and powerfully so. Beauty's nightly refusal of the Beast, and the slow awakening of her attraction and sexuality, are contrasted with the Beast's struggles to contain his own animal nature. He comes to her door covered with the blood of the hunt, and with anguish she sends him away. This echoes the Scandinavian animal-bridegroom tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, in which a young woman is sold by her father to a big white bear -- but in the Scandinavian folktale the sexuality is more explicit. The animal bridegroom comes to his young wife's bed every night, under cover of dark. Beneath her hands, she feels the shape of a smooth young man, not a huge white bear -- but she is forbidden to light a lamp or catch a glimpse of his face. 

From Cocteau's Beauty & the Beast

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Psyche weds a hideous flying serpent -- who is really Cupid, under a spell. By night, a man makes love to her -- but she, too, is forbidden to look. She breaks this taboo, and is punished by losing her now-beloved husband. A series of arduous tasks must be completed to win him back.

Beauty and the Beast by Angela Barrett

Walter C. Scott as the Beast

An American television film of Beauty & the Beast, made in the 1970s and starring George C. Scott as the Beast, notably failed to make any improvement on Cocteau. Robin McKinley was so enraged by this production that she sat down and wrote her first novel, Beauty, in response to it. Like Cocteau, McKinley understood the importance of grounding magic in realism, and uses clear, spare prose to echo the language of stories in the folk tradition. McKinley lengthens the tale into novel form without cluttering it with spurious detail. She takes a few liberties with the original material (Beauty's sisters, for instance, are sympathetic), yet she stays faithful to the spirit of the original. Her heroine is a gawky, horse-mad, intelligent young woman whose name is a gently ironic one. Beauty's time in the Beast's castle is particularly well-rendered, and her raptures over the Beast's library (containing works from the future by Browning and Kipling) was surely the inspiration behind the book-loving Belle of the Disney film.

Beauty & the Beast by Angela BarrettMcKinley was still a young writer when she wrote Beauty, her first published work. Twenty years and several books later, she found herself attracted to Beauty and the Beast once again and wrote Rose Daughter, an alternate retelling of the fairy tale. Reading the two novels together is a fascinating study of the maturation of the author's vision and style, and both books are highly recommended.

Angela Carter is another writer who was compelled to explore Beauty and the Beast. Carter understood how to work with the adult themes in fairy tales better than any other modern author, and her early death from lung cancer has been a blow to the field of fantasy literature. In addition to editing folklore collections, Carter wrote a series of sensual, darkly magical stories based on fairy tales, collected in The Bloody Chamber and (posthumously) in Burning Your Boats. Elements of Beauty and the Beast and other animal bridegroom motifs are vividly rendered in two of Carter's best stories: the poignant "Courtship of Mr. Lyon," and the sensuous "Tiger's Bride." In the latter, a profligate father loses his lovely daughter in a game of cards, and delivers her up to a wealthy masked man who imprisons her in a crumbling mansion. This is a subversive treatment of the theme, smooth as black velvet and sharp as a thorn. In both stories, Carter is careful to sustain the Beast's charisma to the very end.

Beauty & the Beast by Pavel Tartarnikov

Beauty & the Beast by Jan Brett

"Rusina, Not Quite in Love," an enchanting novella by the Italian writer Gioia Timpanelli, published in Sometimes the Soul, transplants Beauty and the Beast to Sicily. An impoverished painter marries a rich, hideously ugly man in order to pay off her father's debts. . .and finds the princely soul hidden by the beastly exterior. Tanith Lee's story "Beauty" (published in her adult fairy tale collection Red As Blood) takes Beauty and the Beast beyond fairy tale forests and into the far future. Lee retains the magical rose, the wayward father, the two sisters, and the monstrous suitor who must not be refused. But the Beast in this case is an alien being, and the climax of the story is a clever one -- the transformation centered on the heroine and her ideas about herself and her life. Lee then returned to the theme in her chilling dark tale "Beast" (Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears), mingling Beauty and the Beast with elements of Bluebeard and Mr. Fox.

Other good versions of the story for adult readers include "Beast" by Francesca Lia Block (The Rose and the Beast), a contemporary meditation on the nature of wildness, and Wendy Wheeler's "Skin So Green and Fine" (Silver Birch, Blood Moon), the story of an innocent baker's daughter married to a mysterious man and taken to live on an isolated sugar plantation.  

Beauty and the Beast by Kinuko Y CraftJane Yolen has worked with fairy tale themes for many years in the roles of fiction writer, academic, and editor of folklore collections. Her slant-wise take on Beauty's story is "Beauty and the Beast: An Anniversary" (The Faery Flag), a poem from Beauty's point of view reflecting on her long years with the Beast and their solitary, childless lives. (You can read it online here.)

I also recommend Beast by Donna Jo Napoli, a rich, unusual, beautifully crafted novel for Young Adult readers. Inspired by the Persian fairy tale tradition, Napoli's hero is an Islamic prince transformed by a curse into a lion. Fleeing his father's lands, he makes his way to an abandoned chateau in France -- where a merchant, a rose, and a courageous young woman bring the story to its proper conclusion.

Beauty & the Beast by Gabriel Pacheco

There are countless ways one can draw on old fairy tales to inspire modern works of art and fiction, as the works discussed above clearly demonstrate, and these ways are limited only by the imaginations of the artists themselves. No single version of Beauty and the Beast can be considered "correct" or "definitive" -- for although the story by de Villeneuve and de Beaumont did not begin as an oral folk tale, it has its roots in that tradition. And it is the nature of folk tales to be fashioned anew for each new generation.

Beauty's father steals a rose  then delivers his daughter to the beast  by Edmund Dulac

And yet, Disney's film of Beauty and the Beast still disturbs me. Perhaps because it has not been billed as a new story inspired by the old fairy tale; rather, it has been presented to us as if it were the old fairy tale, and such is the power of the Disney name that audiences around the world now perceive this as truth.

But it is not the old tale. Too many fundamentals have been changed for the film to make that claim -- and changed in glib or simplistic ways that lessen the story's classic themes. The father has been changed into a harmless buffoon, his role in Beauty's imprisonment diminished to an accident of circumstance. Beauty's request for a rose, and her father's thoughtless way of procuring one, have been deleted altogether, along with Beauty's jealous, interfering sisters. There is no family conflict here. An arrogant suitor, Gaston, has been added and presented as the villain of the piece.

In short, the heroes and villains of the story are clear-cut, unambiguous -- Belle and her father are always Good, Gaston and his minions are Bad. In the old fairy tale, Beauty makes mistakes: she goes home, she falls under her sisters' sway and forgets the Beast...coming close to causing his death and losing her own humanity. In the Disney film, we have a perfect heroine who never grows, never undergoes a maturation of her own to echo the Beast's metamorphosis. The requisite happy ending is achieved, but the price for it has not been paid -- except by the dull-witted characters unfortunate enough to be wearing the black hats.

Beauty's father and Beauty in the Beast's castle by Scott Gustafson

Beauty and her sisters by Scott Gustafson

I am reminded of Jane Yolen's words in yesterday's post lamenting the fate of Cinderella, another heroine white-washed by Disney. The Cinderella of the folk tradition is clever, feisty, active girl -- while in the Disney film, as Jane points out, she's a "helpless, hapless, pitiable, useless heroine who has to be saved time and time again by 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. Poor Cinderella. Poor us."

Beauty and the Beast by Scott Gustafson

Likewise, with Disney's Beauty and the Beast we take one step forward with the creation of a literate and courageous heroine, but two steps backwards as the heart of the tale is lost in the musical razzle-dazzle.

But hey, the film is entertaining and fun. My young friend and I enjoyed it thoroughly. So should we care about what's been lost in the process? In my opinion, you bet we should. It does no service to lie to children, to present the world as simpler than it is. Villains rarely appear with convenient black hats, good people are rarely perfect. Beauty has gone to Hollywood now. Poor Beauty. Poor Beast. Poor us.

I'm not suggesting we boycott Disney's films -- many people love them, especially children. But let's give our young people the old fairy tales too, the hearty fare that they need to build good mythic bones after the artificially-sweetened fast food of Disney. The rich store of world folklore and fairy tales is every child's heritage, and every adult's too. Each time I hear fairy tales dismissed as silly, saccharine, sexist stories -- generally by those who have Disney and Disney-influenced versions of the tales in mind -- I want to cry with frustration.

But, instead, I take a deep breath and say, "Okay, let me tell you a story...."

Beauty and the Beast by Eleanor Vere Boyle

Beauty & the Beast by Mercer Mayer

Art: The Beauty & the Beast illustrations above are by Kinuko Y. Craft, Adrienne Segur, Walter Crane, H.J. Ford, Warwick Goble, Margaret Tarrant, an unknown artist from an 1897 edition, Charles Robinson, Edmund Dulac, Scott Gustafson, Angela Barrett, Pavel Tartarnikov, Jan Brett, Gabriel Pacheco, Eleanor Vere Boyle, and Mercer Mayer. Each image is identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the pictures to see them.) Photographs: Film stills from Beauty & the Beast directed by Jean Cocteau & René Clément, starring Jean Marais and Josette Day (1946), and from Beauty and the Beast directed by Fiedler Cook, starring George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere (1976). All rights to the art and text in this post reserved by the artists and author.

Related reading: In yesterday's post, "Retelling Cinderella," Jane Yolen looks at Disney's treatment of that tale, and you'll find a discussion of Disney's retelling of Snow White in my essay "The Poisoned Apple." I also recommend Virginia Borges' essay "One Million Little Mermaids."

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.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Morning mist on Nattadon Hill

It's early morning, quiet and misty, the sun rising slowly above the moor, and I've been playing the music of guitar virtuoso Ben Walker and friends to greet the day...

Shadow hound

Above: "Silverline," written and sung by Josienne Clarke, backed up by Walker on guitar. The song appears on the duo's third album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Sun (2014).

Below: "John Riley," a traditional ballad performed by Clarke & Walker on their first album, The Seas Are Deep (2011).

Above: "When a Knight Won His Spurs," an early 20th century children's hymn adapted to a folk melody by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The song appeared on Clarke & Walker's second album, Fire & Fortune (2013).

Below: "Nurses' Song" by Ben Walker (with singer Kitty Macfarlane), from his gorgeous new solo album, Echo (2019).  The piece is based on two poems from Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake.

Above: "How Stands the Glass Around" by Walker (with singer Jinnwoo). This one is a new arrangement of an 18th century soldiers' drinking song.

Below: "Let Me in at the Door" by Walker (with singer Hazel Askew) -- based on a 19th century poem, "The Witch," by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge.

Above: "Lachrimaie Pavane," the lute music of John Dowland, played on a Gibson ES-175.

Below: Walker & Clarke perform "The Banks of the Sweet Primrose" at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

Early morning in an English summer

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.

Wild Neighbours: the folklore of animals

Some of the

Our phone & internet line went down yesterday -- and although it's up and running again, I lost an entire work day to chasing down the phone company's repair service. Now I'm catching up, and I'm afraid I don't have time for a new post today. Instead, here's a post from 2013 which seems to me to be worth a re-visit. Not only does it fit in with the theme of "stories and storytelling" we've been following lately, but over on Folklore Thursday they're focusing on animal myths & folk tales this week....

In her elegiac essay "Into the Woods," poet and scholar Ruth Padel writes:

"What would Robin Hood have made of Country Life's recent excavation into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land? Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they From Wind in the Willows illustrated by Stephen Dooleymug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside. A third did not know why you had to keep gates shut -- was it to keep the elephants in (or was some joker taking the piss just then?), or stop cows 'sitting on cars,' upsetting the countryside's most vital beast -- the traffic?

"In a closed, traditional society there is something special about animals born in the land where you, too, were born. The British used to look lazily at gardens, thickets, and moors, and know -- without bothering to think about it -- that foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels, and deer were out there flecking the undergrowth....

"Dangerous or vulnerable, shy or cunning, a pest or welcome visitor, our native animals are part of our romance with the secret wildness of the place we live, even if we never see much of them. We grew up with them in imagination. They were inside us, furry heroes of nursery rhymes, pictures and stories through which we learned the world. Little Grey Rabbit. The Stoats and Weasels of the Wild Wood. The Fox who Looked Out on a Moonlight Night. The Frog who would A Wooing Go. They are deep in British folk song, poetry, and popular art. 'Three Ravens Sat in an Old Oak Tree.' The holly and the ivy, the running of the deer. Landseer's 'Monarch of the Glen.'

"But that's the way it used to be. We are not a mono-traditional society any more -- most kids' traditions center on the TV and the city street. To most children, a weasel is as unknowable as daffodils to a young Indian struggling with Wordsworth during the Raj."


How did we become so disconnected to the land we live on, and the wild neighbors we share it with? I think it's partly because we're losing the stories specific to the local landscape: the stories about this plant that grows on the hill nearby and that bird that migrates here each spring and not just the pan-cultural stories we share with everyone on the television and cinema screens. We no longer know the tales of the animals, and, increasingly, we no longer know animals themselves.

What a different attitude is conveyed by these words from a member of the Carrier Indian nation in British Columbia (quoted by David Abram in Becoming Animal):

"We know what the animals do, what are the needs of the beaver, the bear, the salmon, and other creatures, because long ago men married them and acquired this knowledge from their animal wives. Today the priests say we lie, but we know better. The white man has only been a short time in this country and knows very little about the animals; we have lived here thousands of years and were taught long ago by the animals themselves. The white man writes everything down in a book so it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another."


The old story of a woman who marries a bear, for example, is one that used to roam widely, like the bears themselves, throughout North America. In a Nishga version recounted by Agnes Haldane of the Wolf clan of Gitkateen (in Wisdom of the Myth Tellers by Sean Kane), a tribal princess picking berries in the forest steps on a bit of bear scat and mutters angry remarks about the bears. As the women head for home, her basket breaks; repairing it, she is left behind. Two handsome men appear and tell her they've come to fetch her and lead her from the forest. Instead of leading her home, they take her to the village of the Bear People. The princess tricks the People into believing she is a woman of great power, and as a result she ends up marrying the son of the Bear Chief. She lives with him rather happily, and gives birth to two fine bear sons. But during a period of hibernation, her own brothers find her husband's cave and kill the bear in a rescue attempt. Her husband has foreseen this event. "When they skin me," he'd instructed her, "tell them to burn my bones so that I may go on to help my children. At my death they shall take human form and become skillful hunters. Now listen as I sing my dirge song. This you must remember and take to your father. My cloak he shall don as his dancing garment. His crest shall be the Prince of Bears."


The bear's sacrifice of his life for the benefit of human beings might seem suprising, but it's not an unusual theme in the indiginous tales of North America, where many story traditions say the animals were the First People, here before humans came. Sacred tales from many different Indian nations recount how Bear, or Coyote, or Eagle, or Deer first gave humans the precious, vital gift of fire; while in other tales language, hunting skills, dancing, even love-making, were first taught by animals. Though we've come to expect such respectfulness towards and from other species in American Indian lore, it can also be found in many other storytelling traditions around world -- such as in the sacred stories of the Ainu of Japan. As Gary Snyder notes (in The Practice of the Wild):

"In the Ainu world, a few human houses are in a valley by a little river. Food is often foraged in the local area, but some of the creatures come down from the inner mountains and up from the deeps of the sea. The animal or fish (or plant) that allows itself to be killed or gathered, and then enters the house to be consumed, is called a 'visitor,' marapto. Bear sends his friends the deer down to visit humans. Orca [the Killer Whale] sends his friends the salmon up the streams. When they arrive their 'armor is broken' -- they are killed -- enabling them to shake off their fur or scale coats and step out as invisible spirit beings. They are then delighted by witnessing the human entertainments -- sake and music. (They love music.) Having enjoyed their visit, they return to the deep sea or the inner mountains and report, 'We had a wonderful time with the human beings.' The others are then prompted themselves to go on visits. Thus if the humans do not neglect proper hospitality, the beings will be reborn and return over and over."


In another essay in the same volume, Snyder writes:

"A young white woman asked me: 'If we have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?' An excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals' side. The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. Periodically we dance for them. A song for your supper: performance is currency in the deep world's gift economy. The other creatures probably do find us a bit frivolous: we keep changing our outfits and we eat too many different things. Nonhuman nature, I can't help feeling, is well inclined towards humanity and only wishes that modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody."


The idea that animals love human song reminds me of this passage from Linda Hogan's gorgeous novel Power:

"[T]he panther remembers when humans were so beautiful and whole that her own people envied them and wanted to be like them. They admired the humans and the way the two-legged people stood beneath trees with leaves leaning down over them as they picked ripe fruits, how their beautiful eyes were fully open. How straight they walked! How beautiful the beads about their necks, the dresses women made in fabric that was the dark green of the trees and the light colors of flowers. How intelligent the little shell and wooden bowls they ate from, how good they were at devising ways to catch fish with simple bone and metal, at making trails through the thickets. They stood so gracefully and full of themselves, they sang so beautifully; it remembers all this, how they sang. The whole world rejoiced with their voices....

"[The panther] remembers when its own people surrounded the humans and gave them life and power, medicine to heal, to hunt, even to direct lightning and stormclouds away from their beautiful dark-eyed children....But now they have turned against her. Now that they have no need for her, Sisa and her people,  the panther, are leaving. They leave in sadness and grief. Now so few of the humans have songs or presence, so many have such heaviness that they can barely walk or move, raise themselves from their beds in the morning. And Sisa believes, sees, that the world could end with their human misery."

Grey Heron

And in Wild: An Elemental Journey (another book that I highly recommended), Jay Griffiths shares this:

"Creatures are gente, I'm told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are 'people like us' with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gente. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño -- with tenderness. The Harakmbut say that all animals were people más allá -- long ago -- and there is therefore a profound equality between us and them; they are like distant family, and one has duties and expectations as one would with family members. People are 'familiar' with the habits and ways of animals, and this familarity is cherished. (By contrast in the West, close familiarity with animals was considered devilish: the witch and her 'familiar.')

"Animals should be treated kindly, even in hunting, for they are kin to humans. 'We owe...kindliness to other creatures: there is an intercourse and mutual obligation between them and us,' wrote Michael de Montaigne, sounding uncannily like an Amazonian Indian."


Homo sapiens, wrote the late naturalist Ellen Meloy (in Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild):

"have left themselves few scant places and scant ways to witness other species in their own world, an estangement that leaves us hungry and lonely. In this famished state, it is no wonder that when we do finally encounter wild animals, we are quite surprised by the sheer truth of them."

Barn owl

Louise Erdrich portrays this sense of surprise in a passage from her novel The Painted Drum:

"Coming down off the trail, I am lost in my own thoughts and unprepared when a bear chugs across the path just before it gives out on the gravel road. I am so distracted that I keep walking towards the bear. I only stop when it rears, stands on hind legs, and stares at me, sensitive nose pressed into the air, weak eyes searching. I have never been this close to a wild bear before, but I am not frightened. There is no menace in its stance; it is not even curious. The bear seems to know who or what I am. The bear is not impressed."

No, I don't expert that the bear would be impressed with many of us these days, nor the bees and badgers, the hares and hedgehogs and other wild folk here in the hills of Devon. We don't know their stories any longer. We've forgotten their songs. We don't "stand with presence."

Victorian illustration  artist unknownIn From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner discusses the role of "beasts" in fairy tales, and how our perceptions of these stories have changed as attitudes towards animals have changed:

"Just as the rise of the teddy bear matches the decline of real bears in the wild, so soft toys today have taken the shape of rare animal species. Some of these are not very furry in their natural state: stuffed killer whales, cheetahs, gorillas, snails, spiders and snakes -- and of course dinosaurs -- are made in the most inviting deep-pile plush. They act as a kind of totem, associating the human being with the animal's capacities and value. Anthropomorphism traduces the creatures themselves; their loveableness sentimentally exaggerated, just as formerly, belief in their viciousness crowded out empircal observation."

Brown Hare

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

This is clearly true, and a world in which children interact only with animal-shape-objects while remaining ignorant about the creatures outside their own back door (be it country badger or urban fox) is clearly a world out of balance.  And yet, for me, those soft animal toys awakened my interest in and life-long love of the wild, as did the anthropomorphised animals of tales like Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Wind and Willows. I'm thinking quite a lot about this these days, as I work on a book project involving bunny girls and other animal children. I want these magical beings to lead children back to nature, not to be nature's safe, cuddly substitute. Is this possible? At this point in the process, I have more questions than I have answers....

When I think back to my own childhood, what I wish is that someone had noted my passion for animals and placed a wildlife guide in my hands alongside those tales of Mole and Rat and Benjamin Bunny...or better still, led me out of doors and into the wild, and told tales of the land we then lived on. Not in place of those books, which had done their work in opening the door into wonder for me, but as the next necessary step of attaching wonder to the living world around us.

Bunny Sisters

In Becoming Animal, David Abram asks:

"How, then to renew our viceral experience of a world that exceeds us -- of a world that is wider than ourselves and our own creations?"Does a revitalizing of oral [storytelling] culture mean that mean that we must renounce reading and writing? Must we empty our bookcases? Must we unplug our computers and drag them down to the dump?

"Hardly. The renewal of oral culture entails no renunciation of books, and no rejection of technology. It entails only that we leave abundant space in our days for interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by television nor the cell phone, neither by the handheld computer or the GPS satellite...nor even the printed page.

"Among writers, for example, it entails a recognition (even an anticipation) that there are certain stories we may stumble against that ought not to be written down -- stories that we might instead begin to tell with our tongue in the particular topography where those stories live. Among parents, it requires that we set aside, now and then, the books that we read to our children in order to recount a vital story with the whole of our gesturing body -- or better yet, that we draw our kids out of doors in order to improvise a tale about how the nearby river feels when the fish return to its waters, or about the wild wind that's even now blustering its way through the city streets, plucking the hats off people's heads.... Among educators, it requires that we begin to rejuvenate the arts of telling, and of listening, in relation to the geographical place where our lessons actually happen."

Noctule Bat

"Can we renew in ourselves an implicit sense of the land's meaning, of its own many-voice eloquence? Not without renewing the sensory craft of listening, and the sensuous art of storytelling. Can we help our students to carefully translate the quantified abstractions of science into the qualitative language of direct experience, so that those necessary insights begin to come alive in their felt encounters with cumulus clouds and bleaching corals, with owls and deformed dragonflies and the intricate tangle of mycelial mats? ... Most important, can we begin to restore the health and integrity of the local earth? Not without restorying the local earth."

Water shrew

We are of the animal world, Linda Hogan reminds us (in her beautiful collection of essays, Dwelling: A Spiritual History of the Living World):

"We are part of the cycles of growth and decay. Even having tried so hard to see ourselves apart, and so often without a love for even our own biology, we are in relationship with the rest of the planet, and that connectedness tells us we must reconsider the way we see ourselves and the rest of nature.

"A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, our solution to the mystery of what we are."

Indeed. Part of that stewardship, surely, is caretaking our local, traditional stories as well as the land that gave birth to them. And listening for the land's new stories. Telling them. And singing, so the animals can hear us.


Pictures: The photographs above, of our four-footed and winged neighbors here in Devon, come from the Devon Wildlife Trust. The art above is "Ratty" (from Wind in the Willows) by my two-footed neighbor Steve Dooley; "Woman & Bear," a Victorian illustration (artist unknown); Peter Rabbit by the great Beatrix Potter; and my wee Rabbit Sisters. Words: The passages quotes above are from "Into the Woods" by Ruth Padel (The Journal of Mythic Arts), and from the following books: Becoming Animal by David Abram, The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder, Power and Dwellings by Linda Hogan, Wild by Jay Griffiths, Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy, The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich, and From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner -- all of which are highly recommended.  All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and authors.

Related posts: Married to magic: animal brides and bridegrooms, The speech of snimals., and The dance of joy and grief.

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

"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.

Spells and tunes for a Monday Morning

The Lost Words

The Lost Words, a magnificent book created by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, began "as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us." This beautiful volume contains twenty of Robert's poems/chants/spells entwined with Jackie's paintings of larks, acorns, otters and other wild things, conjuring the names of common animals and plants back into our language.

In the Waterstones interview above, Robert talks about the magical power of words, and of a collaborative process not only between writer and artist but also with the land itself.

Below, Jackie summons otters from a blank white page while reciting Robert's words. The video was filmed in her studio on the wild coast of Wales.

Spell Songs is a companion project in which eight fine folk musicians (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux) were invited to create new songs inspired by The Lost Words. The project began with a residency in the Herefordshire countryside in January; the songs were taken on tour in February; and the music is now being released as an album, followed by more performances -- including the BBC Proms.

Spell Songs

Easter Hare byJackie MorrisAbove: The Snow Hare, from Spell Songs. "The mountain hare, or snow hare, the only truly Arctic animal of Scotland, is under threat due to rapid ecological shifts. A creature that has evolved winter camouflage becomes immensely vulnerable when the snows don’t come as they used to. This song, led by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart, speaks to that fragility."

Below: Selkie-Boy. "Tales of the seal people are a big part of Hebridean folklore, especially in North Uist, Julie Fowlis's home island. Her fascination with these stories, of Norse royalty, enchantment, separation and isolation, led Robert to gift her with a new spell, Grey Seal. 'I began the selkie song thinking it was a drowning song,' he says, 'but by the time I'd added the final verses realised it needed to be, like the selkies themselves, neither quite one thing or the other, neither drowning nor dreaming, seal or human, land or sea, elegy or eulogy, and how it was taken would depend on how it swam into the mind of the listener.' "

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Birds from The Lost Words

Above: Charm on, Goldfinch. Beth Porter, who composed this song, was inspired "by her walks in Wigtown along the Martyrs’ Stake, where she often saw goldfinches along the path and in the trees, and by the end to Robert's new Goldfinch Spell, which forms the chorus: Charm on Goldfinch, charm on Heaven help us when all your gold is gone."

Below: My favourite of the songs, The Lost Blessing. "Karine Polwart suggested the idea of a blessing borrowing images and phrases from many of the Lost Words spells  (Bluebell, Dandelion, Fern, Heather, Heron, Kingfisher, Lark, Otter, Raven and Starling), as well as from new spells (Goldfinch and Grey Seal). The form is inspired by blessings in Scottish Gaelic, particularly from a beautiful collection of charms and incantations called Carmina Gadelica."

The album can be ordered here. To learn more about the book, go here.

Tilly and The Lost Words

Related posts:  Making friends with monsters & other advice for artists and The wild sky.