The Island of the Mighty

Harlech Castle: Four Square to All the Winds That Blow (1898) by Henry Clarence White (National Museum of Wales)

W J Gruffydd:
Folklore and Myth in The Mabinogion
University of Wales Press 1958

This slim booklet (with a little under 30 pages of text) reproduces a lecture given at the National Museum of Wales in 1950. However, despite a slightly misleading title discussion ranges a little more widely than it implies: it doesn’t deal exclusively with the several native Welsh tales in the collection commonly called the Mabinogion, nor is it limited to folklore and myth — fairytale is also involved (sometimes argued as a subgenre of folklore, other times as distinct), and literature too of course, the texts having come to us in written form with evidence of substantial editing.

In fact, a large part of the lecture is taken up with discussion of the nature of fairies in Welsh traditions; but I’m leaping ahead, as poet and academic William John Gruffydd begins with an attempt at defining what ‘folklore’ actually is.

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A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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Irrepressible transformations

Titania and Oberon from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Long Ago and Far Away:
eight traditional fairy tales
Foreword by Marina Warner;
translated by Nigel Bryant, David Carter and Ann Lawson Lucas
Hesperus Press 2012

We’re so used to canonic versions of fairy tales that it’s easy to forget (if we ever knew) that fairy tales come in all shapes and sizes, and have always done so. Those canonic versions are different for each one of us — they may have first appeared in translation from the Brothers Grimm; we may have been introduced to the bowdlerised retellings published by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913; or Disney’s animated films may have been our first encounter with them — but whatever the source these usually serve as our personal ur-texts.

So it is nearly always disconcerting to come across variations of our ur-texts, versions which may be so unfamiliar as to make us doubt they belong to the same family. Marina Warner introduces nine selections for this slim volume, giving us such standard fare as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ — but in early literary forms that may puzzle and confuse.

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A beautiful and terrible thing

J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)

Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.

Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.

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What the child’s eye saw

Edward Ardizzone illustration for The Little Bookroom (1955). More on Ardizzone at http://tweedlandthegentlemansclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/edward-ardizzone.html

Eleanor Farjeon: The Little Bookroom
Eleanor Farjeon’s Short Stories for Children Chosen by Herself
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press 2011 (1955)

Of all the rooms in the house, the Little Bookroom was yielded up to books as an untended garden is left to its flowers and weeds. There was no selection or sense of order here. In dining-room, study, and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered to itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.

From the very start of the Author’s Note we are drawn into the world of the bookroom. I could easily quote the whole of Farjeon’s introduction, so exquisitely does it conjure up a storeroom of reading matter, and so perfectly does it fulfil the maxim that a piece can be more than the sum of its parts. The whole — twenty-seven stories succeeding the author’s note — is delightfully complemented by Edward Ardizzone’s line illustrations, a fact the author acknowledged in a 1956 poem “To Ted” included as a introduction: ‘what the child’s eye saw, through you | The ageing eye remembers.’

Twenty-seven stories, some longer, some shorter, grace this collection. Some of the titles deliberately evoke the fairytale tradition, such as ‘The Giant and the Mite’, ‘The Seventh Princess’ or ‘The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon’. Other tales can be viewed as parables (such as ‘The Lady’s Room’), fables (‘The Goldfish’), or simply enjoyed for their quiet humour (for instance ‘The Clumber Pup’ and ‘Pennyworth’). A couple or so hark back to traditional rhymes or literary pieces, riffing on phrases and names to seemingly ‘explain’ their obscurities (‘Leaving Paradise’ and ‘Pannychis’, for example).

Whatever their form many have a bittersweet melancholy that reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s offerings or a Wilde fairytale, though a little gentler perhaps. Several pieces stick in my mind. ‘The Connemara Donkey’ though set in an early 20th-century England speaks of the traditional belief that made-up stories can overcome any antagonism by becoming true, all seen through the eyes and ears of little Danny O’Toole. ‘The Girl Who Kissed the Peach-tree’ feels like a traditional Sicilian tale, one of a handful of tales in this collection that evince a genuine love for growing beautiful things despite a knowledge that life can be hard. Pre-echoes of this appear in the author’s own introduction to The Little Bookroom:

No servant ever came with duster and broom to polish the dim panes through which the sunlight danced, or sweep from the floor the dust of long-ago. The room would not have been the same without its dust: star-dust, gold-dust, fern-dust, the dust that returns to dust under the earth, and comes up from her lap in the shape of a hyacinth.

The best tales, in my opinion, come towards the end, and somehow evoke a deep-seated yearning for things that stretch back into time. ‘San Fairy Ann’ is a beautiful tale about the love poured into a doll and how it is paralleled in the connections that we make with other humans. ‘The Glass Peacock’ with its themes of compassion and generosity is a perfect Christmas tale, a beautiful little drama contained within a forgotten urban courtyard. And what can I say about ‘And I Dance Mine Own Child’ that does it justice? This treatment of the Patient Griselda tale-type is a worthy descendant all the way from Boccaccio via Chaucer and Thomas Dekker, muting any inherent cruelty but dwelling on a basic humanity that should never go out of fashion. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a little tear at the end of this, and that it wasn’t because dust had got into my eyes.

When I crept out of the Little Bookroom with smarting eyes, no wonder that its mottled gold-dust still danced in my brain. its silver cobwebs still clung to the corners of my mind. No wonder that many years later, when I came to write books myself, they were a muddle of fiction and fact and fantasy and truth.

Fiction and fact and fantasy and truth, yes there is that aplenty in these tales. I challenge anybody not to feel better after reading this collection, or not to resolve to act better. These are stories to remember, and reread, and cherish, so that — as with Farjeon’s own little bookroom — we will all be able to truthfully declare that “Seven maids with seven brooms, sweeping for half-a-hundred years, have never managed to clear my mind of its dust …”

________

February 14th is also International Bookgiving Day, when individuals give or pass on a book or three to a child to encourage them to enjoy reading. Maybe a book such as this?

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book of short stories

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.

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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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