Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

Continue reading “Effie’s fairy tale”

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?
Continue reading “Filled with the marvellous”

Interview with a storyteller

storyteller

Cheryl Mahoney’s pen portrait tells us she is a fantasy writer “living in California and dreaming of fairylands”. Her two published novels are in the Grimm tradition, but with a modern twist. The Wanderers was published in 2013 and concerns a talking cat, a witch’s daughter and a wandering adventurer who wants to live by the rules that govern the fairytale world, until it starts to go horribly wrong. The Storyteller and Her Sisters was published recently and is a story about twelve trapped princesses who must dance every night with twelve princes; but they are not the passive victims that the Grimm story would have us believe. Both titles are available in ebook and paperback format, with the second also on Kindle.

Besides novels, she also writes an excellent book review blog, Tales of the Marvelous, a title inspired by L Frank Baum’s confession “”Since I can remember, my eyes have always grown big at tales of the marvelous.” Here you can read discussions on books in a number of genres, from fantasy to detective, and from SF to historical fiction. I recently asked her about her approach to her own writing. Continue reading “Interview with a storyteller”

Mundane to magical

grimm

Polly Shulman The Grimm Legacy Oxford University Press 2012 (2010)

It’s an unprepossessing nameplate: The New York Circulating Material Repository. Elizabeth Rew is hoping her new job will involve working with books, but it turns out to be more than that, “like a circulating book library with far more varied collections”. She’s given a brief rundown on its history — informative but not very enlightening, she thinks — on the day she starts as a lowly-paid ‘page’, assisting the librarians with day-to-day tasks:

We’ve existed in one form or another since 1745, when three clock makers began sharing some of their more specialized tools. That collection became the core of the repository in 1837, when a group of amateur astronomers pooled their resources and opened shop. Our first home was on St John’s Park, near Greenwich Street, but we moved uptown to East Twenty-fourth Street in 1852 and to our current location in 1921…

Elizabeth is starting to understand this is no ordinary lending and reference collection. Furthermore, she begins to find herself fascinated by a mysterious restricted section. And then situations and events commence moving away from the mundane. Towards the magical.

Continue reading “Mundane to magical”

Grimm by name, grim by nature

forest
A Preseli conifer plantation, a stand-in for Teutonic forests

Cornelia Funke Fearless Chicken House 2013

The second in Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series has been blessed with an authentic-looking late 19th- or early 20th-century map by Raul Garcia, which greatly helps with orientation though, in keeping with the nightmarish nature of the books, its seeming accuracy can be deceiving. In Reckless, Jacob managed to save his brother Will from being totally transformed into a stone being or Goyl (a name derived, no doubt, from ‘gargoyle’); this was, however, achieved at great cost to Jacob himself, who appears thereby to have condemned himself to a lingering death, magically-induced, as a result of his self-sacrifice.

Unless of course he can find a key talisman: Continue reading “Grimm by name, grim by nature”

Darkly imagined universe

looking-glass

Cornelia Funke Reckless Chicken House 2011

Through the Looking-Glass
the Brothers Grimm live again,
but a life more weird

Best known for their collection of fairy tales, more so than for their pioneering philological researches, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (their surname translates as ‘fierce’) are the inspiration for the main characters in Cornelia Funke’s novel. Jacob and Will Reckless’ surname — echoing the Grimms’ — means ‘headstrong’, ‘rash’ as well as being a bona fide English surname. When the historic Jakob Grimm was 11 their father died, much as, when Jacob is around the same age, the fictional brothers’ father disappears. Later, the two real-life brothers trained in law before getting deeply involved in researching folklore and folk-customs, and the older Jacob moved in with Wilhelm and his new bride; in Reckless, meanwhile, the unattached young adult Jacob finds himself in an alternative fairytale world joined by brother Will and his girlfriend Clara against his wishes. It is clear that Funke has determinedly drawn on the lives of the Brothers Grimm to structure her tale (the first of many, we are to presume) of magic and fairies set in archetypal Teutonic black forests and Central European cities.

What other influences can be seen in this novel? Continue reading “Darkly imagined universe”

Disturbing visions

gatehouse

Neil Gaiman:
Coraline and Other Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.

Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.

Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.