One Foot on the Path to Yonder

At last she carefully wrote the words, “Once upon a time…” and thought that the looping line the pen made was a world line, like the one left behind by the tide, and that lines left on beaches and pages everywhere must wind up by going all around the world if one could only follow them.

– Margaret Mahy, The Tricksters

Every beginning is arbitrary and endings are even more so. All stories must start somewhere, theoretically, but finding the end of the thread is something like trying to untangle a spider’s web, and I don’t believe any story will ever really end until the world does. But a book is as good a place as any to start. In 1812 a collection of stories was published by a pair of young German scholars under the title Kinder-und Hausmärchen, translating in English to Children’s and Household Tales. Two hundred years later, the stories are instead synonymous with their compilers, the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

These stories have reshaped the way not only Germany, but the entire Western world, sees its own traditions, becoming an integral part of the genre of speculative fiction and indeed the wider world of all literature. Most importantly of all, they are an integral part of childhood for generations past, present and future.

2012 has been the unofficial year of the fairy tale. An extraordinary number of retellings have been released in every possible format, from plays and films to short stories and novels, the ABC’s online project Re-enchantment – there is even a television series, currently airing in Australia, that has the Grimms as a secret police force defending humanity through the centuries from the creatures of their stories. I wonder what the real men would have made of that.

They were actually librarians. The brothers began their systematic collection of fairy stories in 1806 when Clemens Brentano, a friend and fellow writer, asked for their help in assembling a book of folk songs. Their method was not particularly adventurous; instead of going out to find wise old women or little grey men, they invited their storytellers home, and in fact most of their sources were middle class or aristocratic young women, who in turn had heard the stories from nursemaids and servants. Brentano never ended up using their work, but this research would become the driving force behind the rest of both brothers’ lives.

Their work was taking place at a time when the country of Germany was splintered in smaller principalities, and the Napoleonic wars were bringing much of Europe under the rule of the French. For the Grimms, passionate supporters of German unification, collecting the folk lore of their homeland must have been like a small rebellion, a way of reminding themselves and their readers who they really were. Their first intention was to keep the fairy tales as close to the original tellings as possible, but all writers find it hard to resist a little tampering and over the course of their lifetimes they published three editions of Kinder-und Hausmärchen, each one revised to fit better with their morality – removing sexual subtext, inserting references to Christianity, airbrushing the protagonists to better fit the traditional gender mould. The book had become a kind of educational manual for children aimed squarely at the middle-class market. Dedicated scholars they might be, but the Grimms had sound business sense.

This annoys me. Of course it does. No man, alive or long dead, is allowed to tell me what my gender ought to be, especially when he’s scrubbing out the words of real women in order to do it. I have never forgiven the Grimms for ‘King Thrushbeard’, which is essentially The Taming of the Shrew with Kate and Petruchio as royals. I resent the way they changed Rapunzel into a babbling idiot who couldn’t keep a secret, and turned Snow White from a political refugee into a tame housekeeper. I don’t like the moralism. I don’t like what they were trying to teach.

But here’s the thing. Fairy tales have transcended. They are an ancient thing, a powerful thing, stories retold so many times that they have soaked into the collective dreams of humanity and rooted there. They are a path of white pebbles in the dark forest, the howl of the wolf, the gleam of golden hair at a tower window. They are a glimpse of something else – something other – something yonder.

The revisions didn’t stop with the Grimms. In the decades after their deaths the stories were translated into other languages, brought to other countries, polished by ever more exacting standards of morality. Some became famous. Others were forgotten. Scholars and psychologists have studied them, dissecting them for hidden meanings and symbolism, trying to force them into making sense. And this annoys me even more, because it misses the point altogether. Stories speak for themselves. They don’t need to be translated into nice clean little boxes. They are what they are, and that means they are something different for each person who finds them.

But the Grimms did more than find them. They kept them safe. They wrote them down and gave them back to the world when they might have been forgotten about altogether. They changed them, yes, all storytellers do that. The stories are changing still. That can’t be stopped, and maybe it shouldn’t be anyway.

Jacob and Wilhelm didn’t realise what they were starting. They couldn’t have imagined that two hundred years after they first published their book of household tales there would be a cyborg Cinderella, a werewolf Red Riding Hood, a tyrant Rapunzel. They didn’t know that they would be made into a legend themselves. They were simply trying to hold on to their history.

They may not be where the story begins, but they are the reason it’s still here.

Review No.46 – Carabas

Carabas – Sophie Masson

Hodder SF/Fantasy, 1996

When the people of Catou’s village turn against her, recognising in her a strangeness they can neither trust of understand, the only voice raised against the mob is Frederic’s and he is repaid for his kindness by being banished with her. But Catou’s problems are greater than he suspects. She is one of the matagot, a shapechanger, and there is a destiny on her that will sweep Frederic into a world the like of which he could never have imagined. But will Catou let him keep it? And what price is there to be paid for a life built on lies?

Retellings of the fairy tale ‘Puss in Boots’ are not so common as others from Charles Perrault’s collection, such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Beauty and the Beast’. Masson has an interesting take on the title character, turning her ‘Puss’ into a shapechanging girl with mysterious origins, and there are some other enjoyable inversions that keep the story moving in interesting directions. Unfortunately, there is a shallowness to the characters that makes them difficult to like or care about, and the book suffers as a result. Carabas is intriguing, but there’s no heart to hold it together.

Review No.45 – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente

Corsair, 2012

Whisked away from her perfectly ordinary home by the inexplicable Green Wind, on the back of his Leopard, September is ready for adventures. When she falls into Fairyland, however, it is not quite as she had expected. The land is buckling under the rule of the malicious Marquess. September sets off to do something about it, encountering along the way an encyclopaedic wyvern, a migration of bicycles and a caged boy called Saturday. But her quest shifts unpredictably under her feet. What can September do to stop the Marquess’s destruction – and what will it cost her?

What an irresistible title this book has! My library’s Corsair reprint of the 2011 novel is a beautiful, whimsical paperback that promises a great deal, and lives up to it with a mad adventure that is equal parts exuberant and poignant. In the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak, but with a style that is entirely her own, Valente has created a book that feels like a journey, and one that I didn’t want to end. Fortunately its sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, was released earlier this year. I can’t wait to get hold of it.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.17 – Three Men Not To Marry

People seem to think that just because a person’s female and pretty they’re not supposed to do magic, and they’re supposed to stay at home and have babies and be obedient and be married…Why is that? Why?

– Diana Wynne Jones, Year of the Griffin

In most fairy tales, marriage is the happy ending, the reward for everything that the hero or heroine (or in some cases, both) have slugged through to get there. The finding, losing and reclaiming of spouses is a popular theme in stories such as ‘The Goose Girl’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘The Beauty and the Beast’, ‘The Real Princess’ (otherwise known as ‘The Princess and the Pea’), ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, and so on. This is quite reasonable when you consider that for a long time, marrying into money was the best chance you had to transform your life. Even now, girls fantasise about being whisked away by handsome millionaires; how much greater a dream that would have been for a peasant’s daughter with a short, hard life ahead of her and little hope of changing it.

There are, however, fairy tales in which marriage is not a reward, but something to be escaped at all costs, in what I suppose could be described as the Bluebeard Phenomenon. Funnily enough they don’t seem to attract many modern retellings. As storytellers, humans really haven’t changed all that much: a love story trumps an escape. For this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I have collected three different stories on the same theme, in which the wedding is no happy ever after.

Version 1: The Robber Bridegroom

This story comes from the Dean&Sons collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales and begins with a miller’s pretty daughter who gets loaded off onto the first rich man who comes along. Her fiance has good manners and is liked by her father, but something about him bothers her. When one day he suggests she come and visit the house where she will live once they are married, the girl tries to find excuses not to go, but her bridegroom insists and sets a date for the visit, telling her that the right path will be strewn with ashes. It’s difficult to take that as a good omen.

So the next Sunday the girl goes into the woods and finds a path of ashes waiting for her. She doesn’t trust it though, and having filled her pockets with peas and beans, Hansel and Gretel style, she scatters them behind her to mark her own path. She is alone, which seems puzzling in what was a very moral time, and the journey takes all day. The woods are very dark by the time she reaches her fiance’s house. Everything seems very still, and then suddenly a voice cries out from nowhere, warning her to run away. When she looks around, the girl realises it’s coming from a little bird in a cage hanging over the door. Still, this is her fiance, it isn’t like she can avoid him forever – so she goes inside.

Wandering from room to room, she finds no one in the house but a very old woman who is horrified to see her. Because this is no innocent visit planned by her fiance. The girl has been tricked into a robber’s den, and if they find her, they will kill her. The old woman hides her behind a large cask, warning her not to move or make a sound, and it’s lucky she does because the next minute the robbers return, bringing with them another girl drawn into their trap. In all their feasting and carousing they give her three draughts of wine, and their victim falls to the floor dead. The miller’s daughter watches, appalled, as the man chosen to be her husband tries to snatch a ring from the hand of the girl they’ve just killed. It flies up into the air and falls into his fiance’s lap. The robbers search for it but, fortunately for the terrified bride, the old woman distracts them with more food and wine. Only this time, she’s drugged it. Never underestimate a dissatisfied cook.

Soon the robbers are sprawled across the floor, snoring away. The girl is forced to walk over them in order to get away, but they do not wake, and together she and the old woman flee into the woods. The path of ashes has been blown away by the wind, but the girl’s foresight is rewarded – her peas and beans are still there, showing her the way home. They walk all night. By morning they have reached the safety of the mill and the girl pours out her story to her father. Who hopefully feels bad about his terrible judgement and promises to let her pick her own husband next time, although I wouldn’t count on that.

The day of the wedding arrives. The robber bridegroom arrives and during the celebrations one of the other guests, a friend of the miller’s, asks everybody present to tell a tale. Well, the miller’s daughter has quite an interesting one in mind. She had a dream once, she tells the wedding party, in which she was going through a wood, and when she came to a house there was a bird who warned her away…And she blithely tells the whole story, concluding by showing everyone the ring. Her fiance tries to escape but is surrounded by the other guests. When they say he and his robber friends meet the due reward of their wickedness, let me put it this way, I don’t think it was a wedding.

Version 2: Cannatella

This Italian fairy tale comes from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and bears some unfortunate similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘King Thrushbeard’, which I loathe. A king is trying to marry off his beautiful daughter but she doesn’t like any of the young gallants he throws at her head and jokes that her dream husband should have a head of gold and teeth to match. She of course believes that no such man exists, but that’s never a safe assumption in the world of fairy tales and the king takes her at her word, sending out a proclamation in the hope that such a man will come forward. A wizard called Sciorovante hears of this. Summoning up his imps, he has them conjure him a golden head and rides off to the palace to claim his bride.

Cannatella is in her room, trying on dresses, and ignores the king’s summons until she’s quite ready to come. Maybe if she had been prompter, things would have turned out differently, but she’s a sullen eighteen-year-old princess and incredibly good at infuriating her father. By the time she arrives, the king has already decided to marry her off to Sciorovante whether she likes it or not. And she doesn’t like it. He’s hideous and terrifying and gold is in fact not such a good look. But Cannatella has her pride and she refuses to show her fear. Sciorovante whisks her onto his black horse and rides away, telling the king that they will marry in his own country and he’ll claim the kingdom when he’s ready. The king is fine with that. He wants to plan his retirement anyway. What he doesn’t realise is that Sciorovante doesn’t intend to look after his daughter at all. Instead they stop at a stable and the wizard throws the girl in an empty stall. He is going away for seven years, he tells her, to return to his own country and arrange the wedding, and if Cannatella is not in this very stable when he returns, she will regret it.

And so Cannatella is left there, to live off what the horses leave, drinking from their troughs and sleeping in the straw. They won’t even let her stroke them – Sciorovante is not the sort of owner who makes his beasts happy or well-adjusted. For months the princess lives like this, growing thinner and sicker and more miserable with each day, until one morning she notices a little crack in the wall. On the other side is a beautiful garden full of the most luscious looking fruit. Sciorovante is far away and she’s starving; there is no reason she can see not to slip out of the stable and eat as much of that fruit as she can.

Only the next day, the door won’t open, leaving her with an incriminating pile of fruit stones that she is forced to hide in the straw. To her horror, Sciorovante appears that very evening. Instead of talking to Cannatella, maybe asking her how she’s survived all this time or telling her a few of his wedding plans, he goes straight to his black horse and asks what’s been happening in his absence. The black horse tells him exactly where to find the fruit stones and the wizard goes half mad. For a minute Cannatella thinks he’s going to kill her; he pulls an enormous knife and it takes all her sobbing and pleading to change his mind. Eventually he puts away the knife and tells her what he did when she first came to this awful place, that he’s going away for seven years and she has to find a way to survive in the stable until he gets back. Again.

For a whole year Cannatella lives on oats and bran. Then one day she hears wheels and hooves outside and the whistling tune of a familiar song. Running to the stable door, she hammers on the door, screaming for help, and it is pushed open by none other than her father’s cooper, the man who makes wine barrels in the palace at home. He doesn’t recognise Cannatella at first, but when she tells him the whole story he agrees to help her escape. Hiding her away in a barrel, he brings her back with him and rouses the whole palace in his excitement. The king is not pleased to be woken in the middle of the night by the delivery of a barrel, but when his long-lost daughter emerges he can’t believe his eyes. He has been regretting his hasty decision ever since he let her go and now is his chance to make things up to her.

But she isn’t safe yet. Sciorovante, who seems to have a very flexible approach to the timing of this journey of his, has returned to the stable and found his prisoner gone. The black horse tells him where Cannatella went and the wizard immediately sets about getting her back. Goodness knows why. He didn’t seem to want her much when he had her. Anyway, removing his golden head and replacing it with the more ordinary-looking original, he bribes an old woman to let him spy on the palace from her rooftop. But Cannatella sees him. The golden head may be gone, but she knows who he is all the same. She runs to her father and has him make her a room with seven iron doors, all of which are securely locked behind her. Surely, she thinks, even Sciorovante can’t get through them all.

Only he doesn’t have to. He bribes the same old woman into bringing a beautiful rose-coloured bowl into the palace, which the unthinking king has brought to his daughter. While Cannatella is admiring her present, the old woman slips a piece of paper underneath her pillow. It reads, May all other folks be fast asleep, and only Cannatella be left awake. When the wizard comes for her, there is no one left conscious to hear her screams. One by one the iron doors fall. Cannatella, in a mad panic, leaps onto the bed and refuses to be dislodged; Sciorovante just picks the whole bed up and carries it away. On the way out, however, he stumbles over one of the fallen iron doors, and the slip of bespelled paper falls out from under Cannatella’s pillow. Immediately, the palace awakens. And everyone, from the king and his guards to every cook and scullery maid, fall upon the wizard with every weapon they have to hand. Take our princess? Not bloody likely.

Sciorovante turns into a lion, then a serpent, then a fire and after that a hare, but in no shape can he escape his attackers. Even a rat is too much of a target. Turning into a gnat, he is just about to fly away up the chimney when the king spies him and squashes him flat. Cannatella is finally safe. She marries the next prince who comes calling, perhaps on the principle that however dull he is, that way she will never be the victim of another wizard’s schemes. That isn’t quite the end of the story, though. Freed from Sciorovante’s cruel mastery, the black horse returns to his master’s stable and sets all the other horses loose, then leads them away to live on their terms, happily ever after.

Version 3: Blue Beard

Taken from Puffin Books’ 1999 collection Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, this is the story of a man who is arguably the most famous evil fictional bridegroom in the English language. You might not think so, though, from the way the story starts – we are introduced to Blue Beard as a wealthy and powerful man who is simply unfortunate enough to have facial hair in an unusual colour. Girls don’t exactly flock to him. When he proposes to the beautiful daughters of his neighbour, allowing their mother to choose which girl will marry him, another reason springs to mind. He’s just weird, really.

But he’s also persistent. When both sisters make it clear that neither of them like him, he arranges a grand house party in the country for them and their friends, and the younger girl decides that if life with him is this fun all the time he might not make such a bad husband after all. They are married. Less than a month later, Blue Beard is obliged to go away on business, but he encourages his young wife to invite some friends down to the country and entertain herself as she likes while he’s gone. He produces a ring of keys with detailed instructions for each one. These are for the storerooms, this one is to lock up the silver and gold plate, these are for the strongboxes…and this little key right here, it’s for a room you must never ever enter. Then he gives her directions on where that room is. Because if you don’t want someone to go somewhere in your house, you want them to know exactly how to find where they aren’t allowed to go. Obviously.

No sooner has he departed than his wife’s friends descend for an enjoyable snoop around the house, running from room to room and admiring his wealth. She, of course, is distracted – she wants to know what’s in that hidden room. Leaving her guests to poke around a bit more, she sneaks off and Pandora-like, unlocks the forbidden door. The windows are closed, so at first she can’t see what’s inside. Then, as her eyes become more used to the dark, she realises the floor is thick with clotted blood. Hung on the walls are the bodies of dead women – the lost wives of Blue Beard, their throats all cut.

The girl is so terror-stricken that she drops the key. Later, shutting herself in her own room to try and pull herself together, she notices that the key is now stained with blood and nothing she does can wash that away. Who knows why she doesn’t tell her guests straight away and leave with them – perhaps she’s still in a panic – but by the evening it’s too late anyway, because Blue Beard returns. He received letters on his way that meant his business is already concluded. His wife, scared almost out of her wits, tries to look as if she thinks this is a good thing. The next morning, Blue Beard asks for the keys. Her panic betrays her immediately; the key seals her fate. “You wanted to enter the little room!” Blue Beard cries. “Well, madam, enter it you shall – you shall go and take your place among the ladies you have seen there.”

His wife sobs and pleads. Her beauty and misery win her but a quarter of an hour to say her prayers. This is when things get even weirder, because she immediately calls her sister Anne to her. What is her sister doing in the house, and why aren’t they formulating a plan that is slightly more reliable than ‘go to the tower and see if our brothers are coming to visit’? The minutes pass and Anne sees nothing on the road, only dust and grass and sheep. Meanwhile, Blue Beard has brought his cutlass and is standing by the stairs shouting for his wife to come down to her death. At the very last minute, when he has her by the hair and his cutlass is about to cut open her throat, the brothers burst in on horseback. Blue Beard tries to run, but they catch him, and they run him through. Grisly, but poetic justice, I think.

Blue Beard’s very relieved widow is now sole mistress of an enormous estate. She rewards her sister’s loyalty by settling on her a large sum that pays for Anne’s wedding and buys a captain’s commission for each of her brothers. At length she herself marries again and this time her husband is a perfectly normal man instead of a homicidal maniac, so even if she doesn’t necessarily live happily ever after, at least she lives.

Unlike the other two versions of this story, though, this one comes with official morals, courtesy of Perrault. In two smug little rhymes, he both tut-tuts at female curiosity (because girls who don’t do what their husbands say clearly deserve to be murdered) and praises 18th century men, who control their households without going around killing their wives. Oh, yay. I feel so safe now.

But really, you know, I think he’s completely misinterpreted what the story means. Each of the girls from these three fairy tales are pushed into marriages with men they neither like nor trust and in each, their natural curiosity leads them to discover the truth. It is not what puts them in danger – on the contrary, it is what saves them. If there is a moral to these stories, it is to tell women to trust their instincts. The man who asks for your hand isn’t always Prince Charming. Unlock the forbidden doors and see what he’s hiding on the other side.

Just don’t drop the damn key.

Review No.44 – The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown, 2012

There has been an inevitable hype around the release of The Casual Vacancy. Being Rowling’s first post-Potter novel and also her first work officially for adults, there were bound to be high expectations. As one of the generation who grew up hoping to go to Hogwarts, I obviously had to read this. I knew it would be very different to her other work, but I confess, I wasn’t prepared for quite how different it would be.

Pagford is a picturesque little English town, where the pace of life is slow and people are friendly. When popular councillor Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly dies, however, and the news ripples outward, Pagford’s pretty surface begins to crack, revealing the deep divisions that lie beneath. With Barry’s empty seat on the Parish Council opened to an election and his campaign of passionate advocacy left incomplete, a series of ugly revelations are about to shake the town to its foundations.

Firstly: if you have been thinking of letting your kids read this, stop right there. Every example of unpleasant human behaviour, from foul language and entrenched sexism to domestic abuse and rape, is laid out over the course of the book. There is no one happy in this town – or if there are happy people, Rowling isn’t interested in them. It is as if she is so determined to prove she can write grown-up books that she has abandoned all the mad whimsy and warmth that made me like Harry Potter in favour of bleak, gritty realism. She writes it very well, imbuing even the most damaged characters with haunting poignancy, and she doesn’t pretend that there are glib easy answers. Her characters are complex and interesting. I just didn’t like any of them, and that pretty much sums up how I felt about the entire book. J.K. Rowling is a very talented writer, but if she publishes any more adult fiction, I’ll be more wary of reading it.

Review No. 43 – Shatter Me

Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

Allen&Unwin, 2011

The one thing Juliette wants – more than escape from the asylum where she has been imprisoned for so long, more than food she can recognise or the sight of a bird that can fly in this dead drab world – more than anything else, she just wants to be touched. But that is something she can never have. Because when Juliette touches someone, terrible things happen. All her life, she has been told that this makes her evil, a monster, but then she steps foot outside the asylum for the first time in almost a year and she sees that there are real monsters waiting for her in the new order of the Reestablishment. The question is, will she join them, or for the first time in her life, will she fight back?

There are some interesting concepts in Shatter Me, Tahereh Mafi’s first novel and the beginning of the Shatter Me series. Written in first person, it takes the narration to a very personal level by running words together to indicate Juliette’s confusion and even implies what thoughts she considers forbidden by crossing them out, as though you’re reading her journal. That’s a little puzzling because, though she does keep a journal, this isn’t it. I found her an interesting protagonist, although I would have liked her to show a harder edge at times. The other main characters weren’t quite so convincing or as likeable, though, and I didn’t really buy the world of the Reestablishment either – it felt too generically dystopian, and too quick a downhill slide from corner shops and school lunches to military wasteland and environmental havoc. Perhaps more satisfying explanations will be offered in book two, Unravel Me. It is due for release in February next year.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.16 – The Golden Goose

What is it about fairy tales and gold? Golden apples, golden hair, golden birds. Wealth was only a dream for so many people in centuries gone past, as it still often is, but they could at least dream outrageously of gold in their stories. This version of the Grimm fairy tale is taken from Wonderful Fairy Stories In Colour, retold by Lornie Leete-Hodge and published by Hamlyn in 1981. I don’t know why they thought the colour was so important it had to be included in the title, but the illustrations are pretty cute, in a slightly odd sort of a way. I almost picked the version from a serious anthology, but thought hey, what the hell! This is not a story to be taken seriously.

A woodcutter with three sons sends his eldest out to bring down one of the very tallest trees in the forest. He sets out with some fresh-baked fruitcake for his lunch and a bottle of best wine, courtesy of his adoring mother, and when he reaches the tree decides to eat straight away and do the chopping afterwards. No sooner has he unwrapped his meal than he sees a little grey-bearded man coming towards him, hopeful of sharing, but the woodcutter’s son has no intention of obliging a total stranger with some of his mother’s delicious cake. It’s a decision he’ll quickly regret. When he finishes his meal and sets to work on the tree, his axe immediately slips and cuts his arm.

He is so badly injured he has to go directly home and another brother has to set out in his place. Their mother provides her second eldest son with another cake and more wine, which again proves too tempting. As before, the little grey-bearded man comes asking to share the meal, and like his brother before him, the second son refuses. He is still scoffing to himself about it when he sets to work on the tree, but then his axe slips, and his leg is so badly hurt he can barely get himself home.

There is only one son left. He has a name, presumably, but his exasperated family think he’s a bit of an idiot and just call him Dummling. When he asks to try his luck with the killer tree, his father essentially throws up his hands in defeat and says, why not? Just don’t chop off your own head. Dummling’s mother takes a similar attitude, giving him a piece of bread off her shelf and a bottle of plain beer. When he, too, meets with the little grey man, Dummling is happy to share his rather dull meal and they have a companionable picnic together in the sunshine. I wonder if things would have been different had Dummling been given a piece of his mother’s legendary fruitcake instead…

When the meal is over, the little grey man is so pleased with his new friend’s generosity that he gives the boy some advice. Don’t cut down the fir tree marked by your father, he says – cut down that tree over there instead. Dummling, deciding one tree is as good as another anyway, cuts down the suggested alternative and when it falls, he finds a living goose with golden feathers living in the roots. Well, he’s wiser than his family give him credit for, wise enough not to go back to them with something so self-evidently valuable. He tucks the bird underneath his arm and heads for the nearest inn.

The innkeeper’s daughters each take one look at the goose and fall in love. With the bird, not Dummling. One at a time, the girls slip upstairs during the night to his room to try and steal one golden feather, and each finds herself stuck to the bird’s impossible plumage instead. Dummling sleeps through it all. When he wakes up the next morning he somehow doesn’t notice three full-grown young women attached to his goose, so perhaps he’s not so bright after all. He just tucks it under his arm – somehow – and trots off down the road while the girls stumble after him. A parson, seeing them and misunderstanding the situation, runs forward to try and pull them off. He can’t get away again any more than the girls can. Anyone who tries to help the others get free only gets stuck as well, so soon there are no less than seven people running along in Dummling’s wake, while the boy bounds obliviously onward. Eventually they come to a castle with a rather unusual notice on its gates. The king’s daughter, it would appear, is so unhappy that nothing can make her smile, and it has been decreed that whoever can cheer her to laughter will win her hand in marriage. What could possibly go wrong?

Dummling goes in to try his luck. The melancholy princess, seated by a window overlooking the road, takes one look at his bizarre procession and bursts out laughing. The king’s court is amazed. They didn’t know she could laugh like that. Dummling is undoubtedly the winner and as though the princess’s laughter was all the counter-spell required, his unwilling companions are finally freed. They don’t hang about to congratulate him – I’m not sure they’d dare get near him again.

The king, however, is having second thoughts about his proclamation now he’s actually faced with his prospective son-in-law. He tests Dummling with another task. If he can procure someone who can drink a whole cellar full of wine, the king says, he can marry the princess. After all, nobody could do that, could they? I wouldn’t be so sure, your Majesty. Dummling goes straight back to the forest, where he finds the little grey man sitting on the stump of the goose’s tree. His friend is still thirsty. He has absolutely no difficulty in drinking every cask in the king’s cellar dry. The king, his conditions met, is more opposed to the marriage than ever. Who wants a son-in-law with such inebriated friends? So he sets another challenge for Dummling to complete. “Find me someone who can eat a mountain of bread,” he says. You’d think he might have learned. The little grey man returns and demolishes enough bread to sop up all the wine from the last task. He doesn’t leave so much as a crumb.

The king isn’t quite ready to give in. He demands Dummling produce a ship that can sail on land as well as water. It is an impossible ask, and Dummling knows it. He doesn’t expect the little grey man to have any answers this time, just a sympathetic ear, but there is more to his friend than an insatiable appetite. The boy returns to the king with a ship that sails like a swan on water and land alike, thanks to a set of magic wheels fitted by you know who. The king is finally won over. Dummling marries the princess with his friend the little grey man as guest of honour. It’s such a party that even the people he humiliated with his goose come along to celebrate, but there’s a bittersweet ending. Dummling never forgets his strange friend from the forest, even after he inherits the throne, but he never sees the little grey man again.

The version from the serious anthology is more or less the same, though it makes slightly more sense – the sisters from the inn try to warn one another and get ignored, and while the boy notices them there in the morning, he doesn’t bother himself with trying to pull them free. It doesn’t have the same light, whimsical charm as the Hamlyn version, though, with its illustrations of fruitcake and attractive hats (in colour!), and the good-natured, if selectively blind, hero. It’s not a fairy tale with grand quests and adult themes. It’s silly, and just a bit sweet.

The Blyton Effect

J.K. Rowling got on the wrong side of the Catholic Church. C.S. Lewis is regularly criticised for his treatment of his female characters. Traditional fairy tales are reworked or retold altogether to clean away the violence ingrained into their bedrock. But not many authors have come under so much flak as Enid Blyton and still stayed so popular. She was born in 1897, in an England that was still under the reign of Queen Victoria, and after teaching for several years her first book was published in 1922. She has now been steadily in print for 90 years. That’s an impressive span for books that have been described as deeply sexist, racist and imperialist.

I grew up with Blyton’s books, among many others. I read about boarding schools and child detectives and circuses; the first book I can remember crying over just because I didn’t want it to end was Blyton’s The Book of Brownies, and for a while I insisted on using words like ‘supper’ and ‘spiffing’, lifted directly from Blyton-era England. I frequently disliked the way girls were treated, which is probably why I went off the Secret Seven at early age and moved on to the all-girl world of Malory Towers instead where there were no boys to boss anyone around, but overall I loved the books to pieces. Literally, unfortunately. They are still scarred with sticky tape.

As a rule, I don’t believe in outgrowing books. If they’re really good I’ll keep them around, which is how my bookshelves ended up having Alice in Wonderland next to crime noir novel A Deadly Business. But I outgrew Enid Blyton. I hadn’t read any of her books in a long time when I started writing this post.

So why am I writing it at all? Because I did love them once, and so many other kids have too, even if they grew up into the sort of adults who say Blyton is an embarrassment and golliwogs should be banned. And if kids like something, in defiance of all political correctness, there’s usually a good reason. So I rummaged out my mother’s collection of battered, sticky-taped, falling apart storybooks and started looking, so I could decide about that for myself.

And something I noticed was that the highly controversial golliwogs are like every other character – in fact a bit too much like every other character, Blyton’s short stories aren’t that big on individuality. Sometimes they are mean (e.g. ‘The Quarrel in the Playroom’ from 1966’s Stories for You, ‘The Very Peculiar Cow’ from 1982’s Sleepyland Stories), sometimes they are wise (the toyland unionist in ‘The Toys Go On Strike’, from 1982’s Happytime Stories, the triplets from 1969’s The Three Golliwogs) and sometimes they are just extras in playroom scenes, interchangeable with teddy bears, curly-haired dolls and clockwork mice.

On the whole that’s all they are, toys who happen to be black. There are a few disturbing little asides, though, that I, as an adult, can’t help but notice on the re-read. In ‘The Quarrel in the Playroom’, for instance, three toys fight it out over who will be the grandest – a teddy bear, a doll and a golliwog. The golliwog is referred to as ‘nasty’ and ‘ugly’ by the other two, criticisms that appear to be linked to his colour. For context’s sake, he says equally rude things about them, none of the three main characters are being nice to each other in this story, but it is particularly unpleasant nevertheless. In ‘The Three Golliwogs’, where the three toys of the title are the heroes, most of the book’s jokes revolve around the fact they they are identical. It could easily be interpreted as meaning that all golliwogs look the same. I don’t think that’s what Blyton really meant – the golliwogs in this story are brothers, after all, and the identical siblings routine is a gag she’s tried elsewhere – but in this book it’s seriously over-used.

As for her portrayal of different human ethnicities – and by that I mean anyone from a country outside Great Britain – she barely ever mentions them. In the school stories you’ll find the obligatory ditsy French schoolteacher, the foreign exchange student (who will be pretty, cheeky, probably a liar and inevitably Mam’zelle’s niece) and maybe a brassy blonde American girl who will be brought down to size by a crushing dosage of English common sense. In the St. Clare’s books, there is also a Spanish girl called Carlotta. She comes from a circus, of course…

That Blyton so rarely introduces characters from other cultures is in itself a racist undertone to all her books. The examples above are taken from the Malory Towers and St Clare’s boarding school series; the Frenchwomen and Americans in both are carbon copies of one another. Again, though, you have to bear in mind that Blyton was not the world’s most imaginative writer when it came to personality, and that many of the English schoolgirls are equally interchangeable. Also, it’s likely Blyton was just writing about what she knew. The St. Clare’s books were published in the 40s, while the Malory Towers books date from the late 40s and early 50s. This wasn’t a very multi-cultural period in British history, certainly not in the cloistered little worlds of girls’ boarding schools or middle-class nurseries.

Most of the time Blyton leaves minority groups alone, and while her characterisation is bland, it isn’t entirely one-sided. I admit, I haven’t read all Blyton’s books – if there are ones you have read where this isn’t the case, please tell me about it. This kind of benign ignorance is not at all what I’d expect from modern authors, but she has to be judged in the context of her times, and from what I can remember, and what I’ve re-read, I don’t think she’s as bad as she’s popularly portrayed. It’s the sort of thing only adults are likely to notice. Kids will probably just imagine the character they are reading about looks like they do, though it would be so lovely if the illustrators of newly re-released Blyton books could update the pictures to give new meaning to the original text.

Where sexism is concerned, though…oh dear, that’s a bit different.

Blyton was writing during the heyday of the nuclear family. Daddy puts on his hat and coat and goes off to work, Mummy makes biscuits in the kitchen, John/Jeff/Jim plays ball or sails his ship and little Susan/Jane/Mary Ann plays with her dolls. And it’s sweet. Really, sometimes, it is, especially when the big brave brothers defend their little sisters or are nice to their mothers, or help the nice old lady across the road. Unfortunately, though, everyone is the same.

All the ‘good’ children have to like the same things and behave the same way. The ‘bad’ children face some pretty nasty repercussions, including the deprivation of multiple meals and various forms of corporal punishment. Some are genuinely bad, they steal things or are mean to defenceless animals (one wonderful thing about Blyton is how fierce she is about protecting wildlife), but sometimes the terrible flaws for which they are being punished are nothing more than forgetfulness or a simple mistake. There is no space for moral grey. You are hammered over the head with plots that systematically enforce the status quo.

Good little girls do what they are told. They do not dirty their frocks (unless they are heroically saving a kitten), they do not fight with their siblings, they adore all their dolls like a miniature mother and they are expert seamstresses who are happy to mend their brothers’ clothes. It is an honour when a little boy agrees to play with them. If they are lazy they will be whisked off by vengeful fairies to learn the value of hard work; if they have messy hair a goblin will come and take it away; if they don’t like playing sport they are prissy and should be laughed at.

But it’s not that much better for boys. If you are a real boy, you have to be good at sport, or at least have the excuse of a broken leg if you’re not. You have to be tough and strong and preferably own a dog. You’re afraid of storms? Harden up! You’re shy around other children? Buck up, I tell you! Go do something manly like photographing cars and capturing criminals at the same time.

Good children are rewarded with a whirlwind tour of Fairyland, or at the very least lemonade and biscuits. The children in the world of Blyton are always eating. Ice cream, chocolate cake, blackberry tart, an endless supply of biscuits. But woe betide you if you actually get fat. There’s a peculiar double-standard, if you’re middle-aged to elderly that often makes you an approachable parental figure, if you’re a kid, or live in Fairyland, you’ll just get bullied until you learn how to eat jam at every meal and not put on weight.

Which brings us back to sport. If everyone just took up lacrosse…

There are a great many faults with Enid Blyton’s world. It’s way too simplistic. But I think that is the reason why children love it, because it is so simple, and so safe. The rules are spelled out in huge letters and if you follow them, everything will be fine. In a Blyton book, scary stuff happens sometimes, but you know you’ll always come through. The children are resourceful and brave. The criminals are principled and a bit stupid. Even the Nazis from The Adventurous Four don’t seem all that upset about a quartet of inquisitive children bunging up their plans for invading Britain. If something goes really wrong, the police will arrive and make it all right.

In Blyton’s world, children are always safe. They can go camping or sailing on their own, have midnight feasts, go running off to strange lands at the top of a magic tree or be transported around in a winged chair – they can do everything that the kids reading the book wish they could do – but they’ll always get home okay. There are almost always loving and reliable parents somewhere in the background to provide assistance when absolutely necessary and troops of good friends to provide back-up for every adventure.

No one will get hurt. No one will disappear. Everything will be fine.

Enid Blyton made a safe place for a child to go. The Land of All’s Well. That’s why I can criticise her, complain about her, roll my eyes and shake my head – which I often do – but at the end of the day, I’ll defend her.

Because everyone has the right to go to that land when they need it.

A Trail of Breadcrumbs

I am, as regular readers of this blog may have noticed, a little into fairy tales. But I am not the only one! Even if you have only the most passing of interests in the world of the brothers Grimm, you have to check out the Australian ABC’s extraordinary project Re-enchantment. It’s pure magic. If you’ve been enjoying my Fairy Tale Tuesdays, you should also take a look at Karen Healey’s fascinating exploration of the Sleeping Beauty legend. I’m very glad that I never read the Basile version…

In Doctor Who news, we’re on a countdown now, because next year is the 50th anniversary of its television debut! Would it be too camp to say woo-who? It looks set to be a big year for the series, with hope for cameos from many favourites from the classic era pre-Eccleston (for those unfamiliar with the series, that means before its reboot in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role. Also, you should start watching Doctor Who.) Tansy Rayner Roberts will be blogging about one episode from one season of the series each week in the lead-up to the anniversary on the 23rd of November next year, starting this week with the first ever episode, ‘An Unearthly Child’. You can read her post here.

In a second countdown, the first part of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Hobbit is due to be released this December, and it’s getting people in a bit of a spin. From a giant replica of Gollum in a New Zealand airport, plus bonus fish (to stop him eating the people…?), to a man building a hobbit hole out of balloons, it’s an occasion to be celebrated. Yay for fandom!

Lastly, if you are a writer and you are feeling bad about yourself, read this post by Holly Black. She is a writer so good she makes my teeth ache with envy, yet even she has days when the word count gets stuck. In the depths of literary neurosis, which strikes us all from time to time, it’s good to remember that.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.15 – Long, Broad and Sharpsight

There are variations on every fairy tale. In some the brothers are turned to ravens, in others they are swans; a lonely girl might just as easily receive sartorial assistance from a bird as a fairy godmother. Even stories theoretically told by the same people have developed noticeable differences over centuries of retellings. This week’s fairy tale comes from the 1982 reprint of A Book of Wizards and has some similarities to a Grimm brothers story called ‘How Six Made Their Way In the World’ – but this one is told by Ruth Manning Sanders and is therefore superior in every way. I freely admit that I am slightly biased.

One day a king decides it is time for his only son to marry and sends the young man up a stair that nobody ever uses to a room he has never seen before, where eleven stained glass windows each show a beautiful princess smiling out at him. The prince is supposed to choose one for his bride, but all he knows about them are their faces and those are all as lovely as each other. At last, after walking from picture to picture without coming any closer to a decision, he comes to a window that is covered by a white curtain – and, in true fairy tale style, cannot resist finding out what lies behind. And it is a twelfth girl, not smiling like the others but desperately sad instead. The prince’s chivalry is roused. He promises his heart to the sad-faced princess and immediately all the other pictures disappear.

Well, he’s made his choice. It isn’t necessarily a wise one, as his horrified father tells him when he returns from the tower. The hidden girl was never meant to be seen; she is the prisoner of a powerful wizard and rescue is impossible. Go back to the tower, the king pleads, go back and choose another bride, but the prince is determined and sets off regardless. He travels for a long time, until in the heart of a dense forest – the very worst place to lose one’s way – he finds himself without a road. But help arrives in a very unexpected form. A man comes running after him, asking to be taken into his service. To prove his usefulness, he stretches himself up as high a pine tree and brings down a bird’s nest as he shrinks again to his proper size. The prince is impressed, but insists the bird be given back its nest and the man – named Long, for self-evident reasons – find a way out of the wood instead. Long easily obliges, soaring up so high he can see right out of the forest.

So off they go. Quite soon they have left the forest behind and are travelling across an enormous plain, where mountains tower over them and only Long would have a hope of spotting someone he knows. This friend is named Broad. Almost as wide as he is tall, he doesn’t appear terribly impressive at first sight, but when the prince asks for a demonstration it almost kills him, because suddenly Broad stretches sideways until his body is covering almost the whole plain. When he shrinks back to his usual size, the accompanying wind makes the forest sway like it’s in the grip of a storm. Why this man and Long want to be in the prince’s service when surely they could be the heroes of their own story is a mystery. His service is what they want and what they get.

Across the plain, at the foot of the mountains, they meet a man with his eyes bandaged like a blind beggar’s. He, too, asks to be taken into service. The prince welcomes him to travel with them but isn’t sure what use a blind man can be to him. Only as it turns out, his new friend is very far from blind. With his eyes bound he can see as clearly as any normal person; with them unbound, he can see through anything, and if he looks at something in a certain way it will catch fire or splinter into pieces. His name is Sharpsight and he proves his claims by shattering a wall of rock that stands in the prince’s way. This is definitely a man you want on your side. The prince asks him to find the wizard’s iron castle, where the sad princess is kept captive, and Sharpsight not only sees it, he sees into it where the girl from the window sits crying on her own. The prince is galvanised. “Let us hasten to her rescue!” he cries, and they all head north.

It’s a very long way but when you have a man actually called Long with you, with the abilities to match, there are certain advantages. Like, he can pick you up and lift you over any pesky mountains that happen to be in your way. At last all four adventurers come to stand on a desolate heath where the wizard’s castle is waiting for them, its iron walls turned an ominous red by the setting sun. They cross over the drawbridge and the castle closes its gates behind them, making them prisoners – well, sort of, because as Long points out, he can easily just lift them all out again. Talk about ruining the suspense! The prince isn’t going anywhere until he finds his mournful maiden, though, so onward they go, to a…stable. The prince is a responsible horse owner. But his is the only living creature in a crowded stable – all the others have been turned to stone, and inside the castle itself are more statues, this time of people. Stone princes raise swords against a foe they can no longer strike; stone knights try to run from something they can now never escape. There are even stone servants frozen in the middle of various tasks, which seems very counterproductive of the castle’s new owner.

Finally the four travellers come to a room where there are no statues, just a feast set out waiting for them. Personally, after witnessing the state of the other people in this castle, I would be very wary of eating anything, but the prince and his friends have no such qualms. No sooner have they finished their meal than the door blows dramatically open and the wizard himself comes to greet his guests, leading with him a pale sad-faced young woman. The prince leaps to his feet, recognising her at once. Rescue isn’t so simple as all that, though, and even the wizard’s terms aren’t as easy as they first appear. If they want to win the princess, he says, they must keep her in their sight for three nights – if they can’t do this, they will all be turned to stone like everybody else in the castle. The wizard bursts into hysterical shrieks of laughter and goes away, leaving the princess behind.

The prince is thrilled to meet her. He tells her he’s already in love with her and promises that he will be the one to set her free (how many times must she have heard that?) but he can’t make her say a word in response. His friends, meanwhile, are making their preparations to thwart the wizard. Long encircles the room with his elongated body, Broad swells himself out to fill the whole doorway, and Sharpsight settles himself in the middle of the hall so he can watch everything that happens. But even this won’t be enough to stop the princess disappearing. A wicked little wind comes stealing into the room, sending everyone to sleep and whisking the princess away with it.

The prince wakes at dawn to find his princess gone. He wakes his friends with a horrified shout and Sharpsight tears the bandage from his eyes, seeking the princess as only he can. Carried on Long’s shoulders, the two cross a hundred miles to a wood of oak trees and bring back a single acorn. When they return to the anxious prince, the acorn falls to the ground and becomes the princess again. The wizard, arriving moments later in full expectation of four more statues, can’t believe his eyes. He drags the princess away and leaves her four would-be rescuers to ponder how on earth they all fell asleep.

It’s a long day. The drawbridge is down again and the prince takes his horse for a ride, but the heath around the castle is empty of any kind of life, not even a flower or a blade of grass. He returns only to spend the rest of the day looking at the statues of other people who tried to rescue the princess, and failed. It doesn’t put him in the best of moods. When night comes, he is determined to keep better watch, but the wizard’s breeze returns with its irresistible sleep and steals the princess from under their noses. At dawn the frantic prince wakes his friends. Long crosses two hundred miles with his impossible legs; Sharpsight shatters a mountain with his impossible eyes; and they return to the prince with a precious jewel that falls to the ground as the missing princess.

The wizard is infuriated. To his credit, so are the four friends. On the third night they refuse even to sit, walking around the room as the night wears on so that they will not be tempted to sleep. Which is a very good idea, but common sense is no match for magic and when the wizard’s breeze comes it sends them to sleep in mid-step. At dawn the prince shouts to wake Sharpsight, but even his piercing eyes can’t find the princess at first. At last he sees her. Three hundred miles away is a black sea; in the middle of the sea is a shell, and inside the shell a ring, and the ring is the princess. Long and Sharpsight can’t reach her alone. This time Broad comes with them and uses his own gift to drink the whole sea dry. Long snatches up the shell and they set off again for the wizard’s iron castle, but Broad is full of sea and exceptionally heavy. The sun rises, the wizard comes – and the princess is not there.

But Sharpsight is watching. He tells Long, who reaches the castle in one more extraordinary stride and flings the ring inside, where it becomes the princess. For the first time it is the wizard who has failed to keep her under his eye. He transforms into a raven and flies away to who knows where. The princess’s pale face flushes with colour – she runs to the prince and he kisses her while all around them the statues come to life. Even the desolate heath is restored with a wash of green. The prince then leads a magnificent procession of rescued people back to his home, where his father has been mourning him as dead ever since he left. There is a joyous reunion, a royal wedding, and the princess actually laughs. But Long, Broad and Sharpsight will not stay. Their work is done – the prince no longer needs their services. They say goodbye to the happy couple and head out into the world to seek some other quest. On the way, Sharpsight does the prince one last favour, returning to the iron castle and razing it to the ground with a single pointed glance. As a raven or a man or, I don’t know, an acorn, that wizard is never coming back.

Ah, Sharpsight! He was probably my first ever book crush. A Book of Wizards has been in my family for as long as I can remember and ‘Long, Broad and Sharpsight’ is near the top of my list of All Time Favourite Fairy Tales. A prince who is moved by sadness instead of beauty, and worries about mother birds; a sneaky wizard obsessed with hide and seek who doesn’t get his head chopped off; a valiant display of common sense in the face of underhanded zephyrs. What is there not to love?