Beware the Crooked Man

John Connolly: The Book of Lost Things
Illustrated by Anne M Anderson
Hodder 2017 (2006)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

What attracted me about The Book of Lost Things was, first, the title with its intimation of mystery and, second, the cover illustration by Robert Ryan with its suggestion of the sinister wild wood of the fairytale imagination. Then, as I read it, it morphed. At times it felt like a scrapbook filled with pictures, cuttings and ephemera saved as souvenirs. Occasionally it reminded me of a Commonplace Book, those more literary scrapbooks whose owners copy passages that catch their eye, aphorisms, and quotes, or of a jotter in which random thoughts are noted down in the hopes that they will make sense at some future point.

So what is it essentially? It is a novel about folktales and fairytales, especially the latter with their implicit morals and rules for living an honest life. It’s also a story about living in a fictional dream-like world in real time which somehow becomes real. And it’s a narrative about how living in a fairytale world can reveal secrets and the difference between truth and lies.

Continue reading “Beware the Crooked Man”

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Beyond superlative

raven
Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

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Fairytales defamiliarised

Angela Carter The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
Introduction by Helen Simpson
Vintage Books 2006 (1979)

Feminist — Gothic — retellings — magic realism — fantasy. Yes, the short stories in The Bloody Chamber are all these and more, but to label them is to limit them. For me they are simply wonderful expeditions into the imaginary landscapes of the mind. They may, as Helen Simpson writes in her introduction, reflect and refract “a variety of portraits of desire and sexuality — heterosexual female sexuality” and, as retellings of traditional fairytales, allow her to explore “ideas of how things might be different” from the male-dominated world of the past. But, polemics aside — and I in no way want to deny how important it remains to challenge the masculine consensus — the stories must work as narratives in their own right: the reader, whatever their gender or their politics, must be eager to push on to see what the narrative brings us next.

By subverting, or expanding, or reconfiguring familiar fairytales Carter does indeed so change them that we are unsure whether the traditional narrative will survive intact. The ten stories take those old stand-by tales
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Training manuals

Forest-Path

This post was part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors on Emerald City Book Review which this year ran from October 31st (Halloween) to November 6th (following on from Guy Fawkes). This year’s theme was New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. Lory, who hosts the Week on her review blog, introduced Don’t Bet on the Prince as a “groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays”.

“Nearly thirty years ago,” she writes, “the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences?

Jack Zipes Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement”. Continue reading “Training manuals”

Honest and very human

Rubin vase illusion http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png
Rubin vase illusion
http://scholarpedia.org/w/images/a/ad/Rubin-face-vase.png

E Nesbit The Magic World Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)

Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes

“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”

And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.

As was the way with much fiction then Continue reading “Honest and very human”

Filled with the marvellous

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Fairy tales was the next genre to be discussed in the creative writing class, though I have to say that, following the precedent of ‘folktale’, I prefer the single-word form fairytale since fairies aren’t always the litmus test for this category. As usual this post will incorporate notes from the class with comments of my own.

Stith Thompson (editor of the Aarne–Thompson tale type index) suggested in The Folktale (1977) that fairytales are “of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes”. Further defining features include “an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and […] filled with the marvellous”. In this Never Never Land “humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses”.

So much for the traditional fairytale: does that still hold true for its modern descendants?
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Unusual emotional range

kingdomunderthesea
Illustration for The Reed Girl by Jan Pienkowski

Joan Aiken The Kingdom Under the Sea
and other stories

Pictures by Jan Pienkowski
Puffin Books 1973 (1971)

Morals are the standards by which a society or community lives by, or claims it lives by. Sometimes that morality becomes institutionalised, sometimes even stultifying, politicised, restrictive, but its ultimate aim is selfish: the perpetuation of that society. The fact that some of the hallmarks of morality — altruism and charity and compassion, for example — make individuals feel good about themselves and others shows perhaps that collectivism and individualism aren’t necessarily incompatible, and that the resulting symbiosis is good for all.

All this is by way of introduction to fairytales in general and The Kingdom Under the Sea in particular. Continue reading “Unusual emotional range”