The books that shape us: Emma Tennant

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," wrote Scottish author Emma Tennant (1937-2017) about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home in the last few weeks, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su Blackwell

Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist.

 


The books that shape us: A.S. Byatt

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes

From an essay by A.S. Byatt in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Pained Heart by Arthur Hughes"The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cereberus. I have no idea now where I got all this, except for the Norse myths, which came from a turn of the century book, Asgard and the Gods, bought by my mother as a crib for her Ancient Norse and Icelandic exams at Cambridge. I read the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and several collections of ballads, and 'How Horatio Kept the Bridge' from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. The tales and myths and legends...made it clear that there was another world, beside the world of having to be a child in a house, an inner world and a vast outer world with large implications -- good and evil, angels and demons, fate and love and terror and beauty -- and the comfort of the inevitable ending, not only the happy ending against odds, but the tragic one too.

Enoch Arden's Despair by Arthur Hughes

A Music Party by Arthur Hughes

The Death of King Arthur by Arthur Hughes"At the same time, and just as early, I remember the importance of poetry, Nursery rhymes, ballads, the 'Jackdaw of Rheims' from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Slowly silent now the moon' by Walter de la Mare. I think one of the most important writers to me ever has been Walter de la Mare, though it is a debt hard to recognize or acknowledge. Partly for the singing strange rhythms of his poetry, partly for the strange worlds and half-worlds he gave one glimpses of, the world of a pike suspended in thick gloom under a bridge, the journeyings of the Three Mulla Mulgars, which I read over and over. The most important poems were three coloring books we had, a page of poetry beside a picture, all three complete stories: The Pied Piper, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,' his Morte d'Arthur. I knew them all by heart long before I thought to ask who had written them. Their rhymes haunt everything I write, especially the Tennyson. The enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for him, and for 19th century poetry in general.

The Lady of Shalott  by Arthur Hughes

"Truthfulness forces me to admit that we did not have that great anthology of magical and narrative verse, de la Mare's Come Hither, but we were brought up on its contents by my mother, who gave us poems and more poems, as though it was unquestionable that this was the very best thing she could do for us.

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad Armed by an Angel by Arthur Hughes

"What about fiction, as opposed to fairy tales? What I remember most vividly is learning fear, which I think may be important to all animals -- I used to love the song from The Jungle Book -- 'It is fear, oh little hunter, it is fear.' And I remember Blind Pew tapping, the terrible staircase and the heather-hunting in Kidnapped, I A Passing Cloud by Arthur Hughesremember Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, and poor David Copperfield at the mercy of Mr. Murdstone, the horrors of Fagin in the condemned cell (I could only have been eight or nine) and worst of all (though I still have nightmares about executions) Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch in that brilliant and terrible beginning of Great Expectations. I must have been very little. I didn't understand any more than Pip that Magwitch's terrible companion was fictive.

"I remember my first meeting with evil, too, and it has only just recently struck me how strange that was. I worked my way along my grandmother's shelf of school prizes -- was I nine or ten? Or younger? And read Uncle Tom's Cabin before anyone had told me that slaves had really existed outside The Arabian Nights. Tom's sufferings and the evil of the system and the people who killed him, with cruelty or negligence, made me feel ill and appalled. I never talked to anyone about it. We sang about Christ's suffering in church but that seemed comparatively comfortable and institutional and had after all a happy ending, whereas Tom's story did not. And yet one is grateful for the glimpses of the dark: as long as they do not destroy, they strengthen."

An illustration for George Macdonald's Phantastes by Arthur Hughes

An illustration for Phantastes by Arthur Huges

The art today is by Arthur Hughes, a Victorian painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London in 1832, Hughes studied art at Somerset House and the Royal Academy, and had his first picture accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was only 17. Upon meeting Rossetti and other members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hughes pledged himself to the Brotherhood's cause and spent the rest of his life creating paintings and drawings rooted in Pre-Raphaelite ideals. He was also a leading book illustrator in what was known as the "Sixties Group," remembered best today for his classic drawings for the fantasy novels of George Macdonald. The artist was married (to the model for his painting "April Love") and had six children, one of whom became a successful landscape painter.  (The "fairy painter" Edward Robert Hughes was Arthur Hughes' nephew.) The artist died at home in London in 1915, after a long and prolific career.

The White Hind by Arthur Hughes

Fair Rosemund by Arthur Hughes

The passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading A.S. Byatt's essay in full. All rights reserved by the author.


The books that shape us: Ruth Rendell

The Bride and the Lindorm by HJ Ford

I'm out of the studio today in order to help an elderly family member through a difficult situation (please wish us luck). I'll be back to my usual Myth & Moor schedule on Monday -- but in the meantime, since we've been talking about fairy tales this week, let's re-visit a couple of posts on the subject from the archives....

For her anthology The Pleasure of Reading (originally published in 1992 and expanded in 2015), Antonio Fraser asked a wide range of contemporary writers to describe their early reading, and what did (or did not) influence them. Here is how the great mystery writer Ruth Rendell answered the question:

The Draken by HJ Ford"The picture I can still see in my mind's eye is of a dancing, gestulating thing with a human face and cat's ears, its body furred like a bear. The anomaly is that at the time, when I was about seven, the last thing I wanted was ever to see that picture again. I knew precisely where in the Andrew Lang Fairy Book it came, in which quarter of the book and between which pages, and I was determined never to look at it, it frightened me too much. On the other hand, so perverse are human beings, however youthful and innocent, that I was also terribly temped to peep at it. To flit quickly through the pages in the dangerous area and catch a tiny fearful glimpse.

Night Owl by HJ Ford"Now I can't even remember which of the Fairy Books it was, Crimson, Blue, Yellow, Lilac. I read them all. They were the first books I read which others had not either read or recommended to me, and they left me with a permanent fondness for fairy stories and with something else, something that has been of practical use to me as well as a perennial fascination. Andrew Lang began the process of teaching me how to frighten my readers....

"Because I had a Scandinavian mother -- I have to describe her thus as she was half-Swede, half-Dane, with an Icelandic grandmother, born in Stockholm, brought up in Copenhagen -- I was early on introduced to Hans Andersen. I never liked him. He was too much of a moralist for me. His stories mostly carried a message and a threat. Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, the one I hated the most was the favorite of my mother, who had her stern Lutheran side. This was 'The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,' which is about ugsome Inger who used a loaf of bread as a stepping stone to avoid wetting her fine shoes at the ford. The rest of course was that she sank down into the Bog Wife's domain, a kind of cesspit of creepy-crawlies, and that is only the beginning of her misfortunes.

The Bridge of Blood by HJ Ford

"I never really wanted to read anything my parents wanted me to read. No doubt this is normal. The exception would be Beatrix Potter, but we grow out of her early and only return to our passion after twenty or thirty years. Does anyone read The Water Babies today? Charles Kingsley is just as improving as Andersen but in a different way. It was social rather than moral evils he pointed out. Andersen never gave a thought to Inger's poverty and deprived childhood. The poor little chimney sweep's boys always excited my wonder and pity. I never imagined I would one day live in a house where, inside the huge chimney, you can see the footholds the boys used to go up with their brushes. The water creatures the metamorphosed Tom encountered started me on a lifelong interest in natural history.

The Princess and the Fox by H.J. Ford

"Two years after Tolkien's The Hobbit was published I read it for the first time. Twenty years later I read it again and experienced just the same feeling of delight and The Lion and the King by HJ Fordhappiness and a quite breathless pleasure. That first time, when I was nine, was also the first time I remember feeling this. It is a sensation known to all lovers of fiction and comes about at page two, when you know it's not only going to be a good one, but immensely satisfying, enthralling, not to be put down without resentment, drawing inexorably to a conclusion of power and dramatic soundness.

"While I was engrossed in The Hobbit I was also reading The Complete Book of British Butterflies, a fairly large tome by the great naturalist F.W. Frowhawk -- what a wonderful name that is, he sounds like a giant butterfly or moth himself. That copy I still have, can see it on the shelves from where I sit writing. I used to collect butterflies, kill them in a bottle containing ammonia on cottonwool and mount them on pins. The disapproval of a schoolfellow, whom I rather disliked but must have respected, put an end to that and I have killed hardly anything since, a few flies, a mosquito or two. Outside the pages of fiction, that is."

The Faithful Beasts by HJ Ford

The drawings today are from Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, published from 1889 to 1910, illustrated by H.J. Ford. I have no idea which particular illustration from the series frightened Ruth Rendell, however!

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941) was born and raised in London, where his father was a solicitor and the entire family was mad for cricket. (His father wrote books on the subject and his brother played professionally.) He studied classics at Cambridge, received a first-class degree, and then veered into an art career instead, training at the Slade and the Bushey schools of art. In addition to illustrating children's books and classics from the 1880s through the 1920s, Ford also painted historical works and landscapes exhibited at the Royal Academy, designed the Peter Pan costume for J.M. Barrie's first staging of his famous play, and was part of an artistic London set that included Barrie, P.G. Wodehouse, and Arthur Conan Doyle. He settled in Kensington, where he married late in life and had one much-loved adopted daughter.

The Falcon by HJ Ford

The passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); all rights reserved by Fraser and the Ruth Rendell estate.


Wonder, peril, and transformation

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Oftentimes in the rural world I was raised in as a small child, huge fields would be hidden by borders of plants. Honeysuckle and wild asparagus would grow on the other side. Following the right path could lead one to a magical world, to a world of mysterious shapes, of growing things, a paradise of Snow White illustrated by Walter Cranehidden delights. In An Unspoken Hunger, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams describes moments of transformation as she revels in nature: 'In these moments I felt innocent and wild, privy to secrets and gifts exchanged only in nature...Hands on the earth, I closed my eyes and remembered where the source of my power lies. My connection to the natural world is my connection to the self -- erotic, mysterious, and whole.' The ecstasy and sense of enchantment I felt in the natural world was never talked about by grown-ups, but it was there in the stories I read.

"Fairy tales were the manuals that instructed me how to confront and cope with that world. They sanctioned the merger of fantasy and dreaming with concrete reality. They sanctioned all that was taboo in my family. Fantasy was often seen by Christian folks as dangerous, potentially Satanic. My love of fairy tales was accepted as long as it was not much talked about."

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

Wood Nymph design by Walter Crane

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman:

"I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings. How could the trivial nature of the here and the now compare with The Six Swans illustrated by Walter Cranejourneys in which heads or hands were suddenly chopped off, bones were tied in silk and buried under trees, foolish brothers became swans, and a traveler might suddenly be beset by cruel spells, horses' heads that could speak and other twists of fate and circumstance?

"Why such tales should feel more real to me and to most child readers than 'realistic' fare is both a simple and complex phenomenon. Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads 'Hansel and Gretel' feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely."

The Hind in the Wood

From "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold:

"One of the defining characteristics of the fairy tale...is that impossible situations are not only possible, but expected and anticipated. Disbelief is suspended -- no one questions the great wall of briars around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or that a fairy godmother appears to turn mice into men, or that a wolf can lie in grandmother’s bed. The fantastic is interspersed with the ordinary -- birds talk (as they should not) and fly (as they should) and these things occur as naturally as any sunrise or sunset. It is a sign of modern cultural loss that to accept the fantastic in such a manner is seen as a form of escapism from the real world.

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane"I don’t believe in escapism. If you love story (no matter the subject) so much that you spend every possible minute immersed within it, you are not escaping life -- story is your life. What the fairy tale offers is not escapism, but a renewed sense of wonder at the world in which we live. I think I need hardly describe why this sense of wonder is relevant to us today. Despite the advances in technology (some of which cause that very sense of which I speak), we are not so much different, as a whole, from those who first committed the oral wonder tale to paper and reshaped it to fit whatever vision or message they chose to impart to their readers. I find that most of us retain the basic human desire to believe in the impossible, the miraculous, and to hope for some sort of transformation -- in ourselves, in our lives, and in the very world around us. For no matter where or when we live, the world is fraught with peril -- much like the wild wood of old -- and we who walk through it ever hope for the miracle that will ease our path or the paths of others. The fairy tale, in whatever genre it manifests, often provides us with the very thing we seek, even though in story form. It lets us believe that, no matter how awful the circumstances, a miraculous transformation will occur that will somehow lead us out of the perilous forest and more, the fairy tale allows us to make that transformation and to make it right here in the very same world from which we have been accused of trying to escape. The fairy tale can therefore be seen as a liminal tal -- a literature through which transformation may be found in both fantasy and reality. True to its fluid nature, the fairy tale weaves a sense of wonder into both."

Drawing by Walter Crane

Today's art, once again, is by Walter Crane (1845-1915), whose work played a prominent role in the Golden Age of Illustration in Britain. To learn more about him, go here. To learn more about his illustration process, visit this interesting post on the Books Around the Table blog.

The Hind in the Woods illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 2004);  and "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold (Cabinet des Fées, September 11, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.


Escaping into magic

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Fairy tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood. Despite all the lessons contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice -- the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail. The evocation of a just world, where right would prevail over wrong, was a balm to my wounded spirits during my childhood. It was a source of hope. In the end I could believe that no matter the injustices I suffered, truth would come to light and I would be redeemed. Indeed, the message of redemptive love shared in so many beloved fairy tales sustained me."

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"If you really read the fairy-tales you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other -- the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore -- the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now, it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolised by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law." 

Bluebeard illustrated by Walter Crane

From What It Is by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable."

Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman:

"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The art today is by the great English painter, illustrator, and designer Walter Crane (1845-1915). To learn more about his work, go here.

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton, published Fantasists on Fantasy, edited by Robert H. Boyer & Kenneth J. Zahorsky (Avon Books, 1984); What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly Editions, 2008); and "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


In the eye of the storm

Fernworthy 1

If I had to chose a single quote to encapsulate my view of life and art, this line from Jeanette Winterson's essay "Art Objects" would be a strong contender: "I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society."

Yes. That's it exactly.

Fernworthy 2

"Art is central to all our lives," Winterson insists, "not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

Fernworthy 3

Reflecting on the nature and value of art, Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once said: "I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

Fernworthy 4

But there is just so much to distract us right now. Politics. Climate crisis. A world-wide pandemic. Keeping our loved ones safe and the wolf from the door. How do we find that "stillness in chaos" when the din of chaos is everywhere, and so many good people are tense, and angry, and frightened, and flailing?

Fernworthy 5

I turn again and again to these words by Italo Calvino, who knew a thing or two about surviving hard times: "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Fernworthy 6

The books I read are not inferno. The stories I write are not inferno. The people and animals and places I love are not inferno. I am giving them space. I am finding the quiet eye of the storm.

Fernworthy 7

It is here. With you.

Fernworthy 8

Fernworthy 9

The first quote by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy & Effrontery (Jonathan Cape, 1996); the second quote is from "Up Front: Talking With Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008). The Saul Bellow quote is from Conversations With Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria Cronin (University of Mississippi Press, 1994). The Italo Calvino quote is from Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). The poem in the picture captions is from The Complete Poems of James Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Princep Folly  near Chagford  Devon by Stu Jenks

As rain drums on the studio's tin roof and a cold autumn wind strips leaves from the trees, here are songs of shelters and ruins...of tumbled stone walls half-buried in ivy...of the death of the year that gives birth to the new...of the losses that make way for new beginnings.

Above: "These Ruins," a new single by Bernadette Morris, from Co. Tyrone, Ireland. She has one solo album, All the Ways You Wander, 2013, with a second due out next year.

Below: "Green Unstopping" by The Rheingans Sisters (Anna & Rowan Rheingans), from the Peak District of Derbyshire. The song appeared on their lovely third album, Bright Field, 2018.

Above: "House on a Hill" by singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney, from Oxfordshire. The song, which was written and filmed in her family cottage on the North York Moors, appeared on her gorgeous album Shelter, 2018. (For the title song from the album, go here. For a live version of "House on the Hill," plus Chaney's "Roman Holiday," go here.)

Below: "The Old Churchyard" by Offa Rex (Olivia Chaney with The Decemberists). The song is from their collaborative album The Queen of Hearts, 2017.

Above: "Young Water Eyes" by Words of a Fiddle's Daughter (Adam Summerhayes and Murray Grainger of The Cinderhouse Rebellion, with poet Jessie Summerhayes), from North-East England. It appears on their new album of folk-tone-poems, rúnian (Anglo-Saxon for ’whisper’).

Below: "The Same Land" by Salt House (Ewan MacPherson, Lauren MacColl, and Jenny Sturgeon), based in Scotland. It's a soul-stirring song from their stunning new album Huam (a Scottish word for the call of an owl).

East of Merrivale by Stu Jenks

The Dartmoor photographs above are by our good friend Stu Jenks, an American photographer based in Arizona. (They were taken on a visit to Dartmoor a few years ago.)

For a previous post on the folklore of hearth & home, and magical houses in fantasy literature, go here. For a post on "home, land, and the view out the window," go here. And for a post on the mythos of moving, and "hefting" to a new home, go here.


The road between dreams and reality

Stiniel 1

Stiniel 2

One final post on men and fairy tales to end the week:

"Men have always loved fairy tales," says fairy tale scholar  Jack Zipes, "loved to tell them, loved to hear them, loved to write them. Although the fairy tale has has been more or less labeled a female, if not effeminate and infantile, affair and been disparaged since the late Renaissance as 'feminine' -- associated with Mother Goose, gossips, witches, grannies, and foolish ladies -- more than anything else, this disparagement had to do with the Christian church's endeavor to brand secular and pagan tales as heretical and its campaign to proselytize and establish its authority through its own fantastic myths. The denigrating attitude was also connected to the development of canons of proper literature and the separation of high and low culture. Whatever was associated with women was generally excluded from high culture. Yet the fairy tale was never 'feminine,' never the property of women alone, though it might have been gendered in the way it was told and written. Men always told and wrote fairy tales. If we simply cast a glance at the prominent writers of literary fairy tales, they include mainly men, from Straparola and Basile through Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hoffman, and Andersen to Hesse, Tolkien, Ende, Coover. The classical genre has been framed by male authors, although it has certainly been challenged and surverted by women writers from the very outset in France and certainly during the last thirty-five years. And men have also joined in the subversion."

Stiniel 3

Stiniel 4

"Why fairy tales?" asks Gregory Maguire, author of The Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and other fairy tale inspired works. "As Erik Christian Hauhaard once said, 'The fairy tale belongs to the poor.' Even when it is about the daughter of a king, she is a daughter disenfranchised, endangered, imperiled, no more in control of her destiny than those on hijacked planes or working high in magic towers. We need to practice the art of believing in survival so that when we need to survive, we recognize the concept. Why these fanciful conceits, these marmalade skies, these mutant chickens, these motherless children in fairy tales? Because by being a notch or two different than our own world, they can be noticed; they show up against the static and the smudge of dailiness. Then, when we look back at our world, we see with renewed vision, with rested eyes and restored spirits. The static isn't so impenetrable, the smudge no longer so bleary."

Stiniel 5

Stiniel 6

"I never wanted to be a fairy-tale princess (although many gay boys do)," writes novelist Greg Bills. "I did spend real time in those stories, however. Little Red, and the Three Bears, and Jack and his Beanstalk. I found great appeal in wandering those darkly dangerous forests, roaming inside treasure caves (Open Sesame!), and climbing a vegetable ladder to a grossly oversized castle. And, of course, there was the Giant. Or Paul Bunyan. Or Dad. Or Whoever He Was. Shrugging my way back into boyhood, I can feel that extra prick of interest that encounters with giants always gave me. Jack's. Goldilocks surprised in bed by three immense bears. David's Goliath. The Jolly Green Guy. Later, Odysseus and the Cyclops, and the giant that the protagonists encounter in The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books). There was a craving there. A need. A quickening. Whatever it Was, it stirred in me.

"Fairy tales, and later fantasy books and films and comic books, offered an uregulated sanctuary not only for creatures that could not exist in actuality -- talking animals, shoemaking elves, Baba Yaga's chicken-legged house -- but for emotions that had no conceivable outlet into reality. I could not be a gay boy in a world where gay boys did not exist, but, then, hobbit, centaurs, and giants had no claim to actuality either yet still managed to survive -- on the page and in my head if nowehere else. If I could not pursue the Giant in my world, Jack could in his."

Stiniel 7

Stiniel 8

"I don't honestly know what I think about fairy tales, because they are part of me," Neil Gaiman says simply. "It would be like trying to explain what I think of my spine or circulatory system or my eyes. The tales I read as a boy define how I see the world and how I perceive what I see; they flow through me, and sometimes still, they hold me up. I write stories as an adult in which the membrane of the world is thin and permeable and in which something more exists beneath and above and, truly, that is the world I believe in. (Do I mean that literally? Certainly, although literal means constructed of words, and it is stories, constructed of words, that we are discussing here.) The road between dreams and reality is one that must be negotiated, not walked."

4

Stiniel 9

Stiniel 10

Mirror  Mirror and Brothers & Beasts

Feather on moss

Words: The passages quoted above are from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from Donald Finkel's collection Simeon (Atheneum, 1964). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Howard and Tilly in the fairy tale landscape we live in.


Hansel and the trail of stones

 Lorenzo Mattotti 1

From "Hansel," a remarkable essay by poet Richard Siken, which begins like this:

"Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after another, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don't need to, don't. Wouldn't that be great? Just don't make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace, and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn't true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape. Sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.

"I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war -- running, hiding, privation -- but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to -- We're Americans now -- but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is my bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and moving slowly in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn't. Here is a story where everything goes wrong, here is a story where everyone has their back against the wall, here is a story where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don't, they'll die. Here is a story, not of good and evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame. How are you supposed to fall asleep to this?

 Lorenzo Mattotti 2

"Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such hard times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. 'What is to become of us?' says the man. 'Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,' says the woman. The two children, awake from hunger, heard everything their parents were saying. Trust no one. You are expendable. You are a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut, we will begin to plan your demise. If I were you, were smart, I'd stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no out.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 3

"Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says, 'Be quiet, don't worry. I know what to do.' And with that he got up, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside....The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles outside the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak the woman comes and wakes up the children. 'Get up, you lazybones. We're going into the woods to fetch wood.' She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, 'Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner, for you'll not get any more.' Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pockets onto the path.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 4

"They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It is not an ax, it is a branch that he has tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, it's dark, they cry, the moon rises, and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: Be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn't have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: When someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.

Lorenzo Mattotti 6

"My father is reading me this story and sometimes its just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe he is innocent, or pure of heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father's house. Stupid, stupid kids."

 Lorenzo Mattotti 8

 Lorenzo Mattotti 9

A little later in his essay, Silken writes:

"There are many definitions for poetry that are useful. I like 'Poetry is language that does more than one thing' and 'Poetry is the residue of a life lived.' I use words like pebbles, like residue. You are are in terrible danger. Grab your pebbles and go. Make a trail away from doom and don't look back. It works better than I thought it would. I also believe that anything can happen in words. The teller decides. I took it to heart. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true. The Dalai Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things. And since you are always moving forward -- pushed, pulled, or just strolling along -- you might as well take note of how and where you're going. Many writers can point to an event in their lives where they gained permission to write. The story of Hansel (and Gretel) gave me a mandate to write, to describe the terrain, for myself as well as for anyone who might want to, need to, follow."

 Lorenzo Mattotti 10

You'll find the Siken's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and I recommend reading it in full.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 7

The striking Hansel & Gretel pictures today are by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, created for an illustrated edition of the story originally published in France. (A later English edition, with text by Neil Gaiman, appeared from TOON Graphics in 2014.) Mattotti studied architecture when he was young but ended up in the comics field instead -- making his name with such works as Fires and Labyrinthes from the 1980s onward, and winning an Eisner Award for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2003. He also illustrates children's books (Pinnochio, Eugenio, The Pavillion on the Links, etc.), and is internationally renown as a magazine and fashion illustrator. Born and raised in Lombardy, Mattotti now lives with his wife and family in Paris.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 11

Fairy Tale anthologies edited by Kate Bernheimer

Words: The passage above by Richard Siken is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawings above are from Hansel & Gretel, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti (TOON Graphics, 2014) -- with thanks to Charles Vess for introducing me to it. All rights reserved by the artist.


Fairy tales and youngest sons

Howard Pyle

From "The Boy Who Went Forth," an essay by novelist Christopher Barzak (in Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer):

Howard Pyle"I grew up reading in a home where no one read, and in that home where my older brothers (had they read) wouldn't have been caught dead with a Charles Perrault book, I grew up reading fairy tales. I was an anomoly, I think, born in a small rural town in Ohio, in a ranch house my father built on my grandmother's farm. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, recalling the friends of my youth, I remember being aware at a young age that, among the boys I was friends with, none of them read very much. And they especially didn't read fairy tales. Watching the Disney versions was okay when we were small, but even those became off-limits the nearer we drew to our teenage years.

"And yet I counted fairy tales among my varied reading pleasures. I enjoyed comic books (Marvel rather than DC), mysteries (Poe), adventure stories for boys (Craig's My Side of the Mountain), science fiction and fantasy (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle), horror (again Poe), folktales (Irving), and fairy tales (Perrault rather than the Grimms, though I love the Grimms as well as Andersen). I didn't speak of my reading habits with my friends or family. It was private. When I read, I felt as if I could leave the world around me where -- perhaps I knew even then, in some corner of my mind -- I didn't quite fit. Why would I expose the very activity that allowed me to engage in a kind of freedom, that allowed me access to a world in which the limitations of this one disappeared and my imagination could roam past the boundaries of the life I'd been born into? I did not hide my reading, as that would only have aroused suspicion, but I did not speak about it either. I must also make clear, though, that I didn't know I was protecting something. I didn't realize that until I was older.

Bearskin by Howard Pyle

"Although I loved reading fairy tales, there was a certain kind of fairy tale I hated to discover. Tales in which two or three sons and a father act as the central characters, wherein one or two of the boys are either talented, smart, handsome, or all of these things, and the youngest or third son is a weak, strange, malformed, or stupid creature. I took an immediate dislike to these stories, but at the time I wasn't sure why. When I came across fairy tales that used this pattern of characters, though, I would pass these stories over for tales in which someone's dreams come true.

"What I did not understand then was that I had found a type of fairy tale that reflected some aspect of myself, my family, my experience in the 'real world,' and that what it reflected I did not want to see. I sought out the fairy tales that did not reflect my experience, because I didn't want to find myself in stories that were not reaffirming about my placement in the world. What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality."

Howard Pyle

Chris gives one example of this kind of character: the second son in the Grimms' fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is, a boy portrayed as so useless that he cannot work in his destined trade and earn a living like his elder brother, and so foolish that he hasn't got the sense to be frightened in frightening situations.

The Swan Maiden by Howard PyleThe boy ventures off to learn about fear, moving through an odd series of adventures. He "spends the night among the hanging corpses of the dead husbands of a rope-maker's daughter without realizing he is keeping company with dead men, and he destroys demonic cats in a castle because he knows they are tricking him when they ask if he wants to play cards (slyly he says yes, and before they can put forth their claws he destroys them). He conquers an entire castle full of ghosts and demons and the living dead. Yet somehow this boy is considered stupid.

"The real trick of this tale is in what it reveals about the teller of the story, who I take to be a great sort of Everyman or Everwoman figure, a member of small-town agrarian society who understands the rules of that society and what is considered good and what is considered bad. We are told the second son is stupid because he has no way of earning his own bread, and because he apparently does not fear many of the things that everyone else in the society clearly sees reason to fear. He is unafraid of corpses, ghosts, and demons. He does not run when anyone with any sense would run. Of course the town and town teller, Mr. or Mrs. Everyman or Everywoman, finds the boy to be a stupid, queer sort of fellow.

"Difference, then, constitutes stupidity in the land of fairy tales."

Differences like reading. Or going to college. Or growing up to write books instead of working with one's hands.

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

Later in this fine essay (which I recommend reading in full), Christopher writes:

The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle"It was not until I re-read as an adult the Grimms' fairy tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's and Charles Perraults' stories, that I came to understand why the stories of the dullard sons and brothers pierced me so keenly as a child, to the point that I would slap a book closed or flip furiously to find a different sort of tale. As an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families. From Perrault's Tom Thumb, a tiny weakling among his healthy strong brothers, I learned that the smallest, weakest child could also be the one to outwit an ogre and save his brothers from certain death and his family from poverty. His smallness, his weakness, provided him with advantages and a keen intelligence that his brothers did not have.

"But it is to the Brothers Grimm boy who went forth to learn what fear was that I still return. As an adult male reader of fairy tales, I can now take some comfort and nourishment from his absurd journey, his going forth fearlessly on a path that others would turn away from. In him I've found a sort of kindred spirit."

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

The art today is by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle drew and painted from a young age, spent three years working in the studio of F. A. Van der Weilen in Philadephia, then moved to New York to become an illustrator with the help of Edward Austin Abby and Frederick S. Church. By the time he returned to Wilmington in his late twenties, Pyle's career was well established and he was writing books as well as illustrating them, while also producing sumptuous work for magazines. Generations have now grown up on Pyle's books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur's Knights, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and The Wonder Clock. (Most of the drawings in this post are from the latter.)

In 1990, Pyle established The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art -- first in Wilmington, and then in eastern Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River. The school and the art movement it engendered -- both now known as The Brandywine School -- produced an extraordinary number of superb illustrators including  N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

From The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle

The passage above is from Christopher Barzak's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The Neil Gaiman poem in picture captions first appeared in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by me & Ellen Datlow (Avon Books, 2000), and was reprinted in Brothers & Beasts. All rights reserved by the authors.