The banshee’s exile

Edvard Munch 1895 lithograph of The Scream
Edvard Munch’s 1895 lithograph of The Scream

Joan Aiken: The Scream
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Edvard Munch’s expressionist work The Scream is justly famous for its haunting quality: a figure shrieks in the foreground while in the background of the original painting a lurid red sky is reflected in the waters of a Norwegian fjord. Two figures are strolling along a walkway away from the figure, intent perhaps on the two vessels at anchor or the port which can just be discerned by the steeple of the church.

Munch’s painting has not only given its title to Joan Aiken’s children’s book but also furnished one of the many themes that run through its pages. An iconic image that has found its way onto objects as mundane as a whoopee cushion given to the author transforms into a screech that causes a fatal traffic accident, a shriek that recalls a banshee’s cry which in turn inspires a composition by obscure composer Ronald Runaldsen, and a howling storm that produces a wave fit to swamp the puny boat of any owner who foolishly ventures out.

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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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Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)

If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.

Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.

But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.

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Retellings worth rereading

Antique shadow puppet: wayang kulit from Malaysia’s neighbour, Java [credit: Invaluable.com]

Daphne Lee (editor): Malaysian Tales.
Retold & remixed
Foreword by Adèle Geras
ZI Publications, Malaysia 2011

Sixteen tales, fourteen authors, one culture, all united in demonstrating the vitality of narrative traditions from the Malay peninsula. Drawing from myth, folklore, legend and oral history, these are refurbished tales in distinctive voices with individual tones, approaches and narrative styles. A few are straightforward retellings but most spin their stories — as all creative writings do — to give them contemporary relevance, either through placing them in modern contexts or drawing out themes latent in the originals. Daphne Lee has exercised a careful editorial judgement to commission and sequence these, and each tale has a brief afterword to explain how each contributor has arrived at their choice and treatment.

And what a range of treatments we are offered. Modernised tales which bring out psychological truths about personal relationships. A fable analogous to the story of the Gingerbread Man which uses updated language, puns and twists. A legend about a vampiric raja now turned into a pitch for a teenage movie. A tale about how Singapore is saved repurposed to explain why the saviour might have been condemned to death. A curious tradition about a rock that eats a mother is given the science fiction treatment. Each tale is rooted in Malay traditions but hybridised to give startling new blooms.

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Siren song

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Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
Introduction by Neil Gaiman 2000
Gollancz 2018 (1926)

“… there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.” — Endymion Leer

Something is, if not quite rotten, then unsettling in the state of Dorimare, a sleepy and somewhat smug country centred on its main town, Lud-in-the-Mist. Its principal citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is to all intents and purposes a paragon of conformity, adhering to the letter of the law and to centuries-old traditions, but deep down he fears he is not what he tries to be: he worries he may be an outsider, his concerns arising from the fact that he has heard … the Note.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Note that haunts Nathaniel — which manifests itself as an awareness of something beyond his prosaic, mundane existence — is somehow connected with a nobleman ousted some centuries before and with smuggled goods known (but never referred to) as fairy fruit. Whether he wants to or not the good man will find himself drawn into a situation that will threaten both edifice and foundations of a way of life the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist — Ludites all — take for granted.

This novel, despite clearly being a fantasy, crosses quite a few other genres while yet feeling one of a kind. Is it a philosophical meditation or a detective story? Is it about the conflict of civic duty and personal honour or about family life versus personal quests? Is justice about vengeance and retribution or about readjusting balance? As a novel does it retain a core of realism or is it veering towards a self-indulgent idyll? It is a bit of all these things and yet Lud-in-the Mist is not heavy: there are comic touches aplenty in amongst the satire, smiles amidst the malice, love in the face of broken friendships.

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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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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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