Tag: fairy tales

Review: The Land of the Green Man

Short post today because I don’t have a ton to say about Carolyne Larrington’s The Land of the Green Man, except that it’s delightful. It’s a tour around the folklore of the British Isles, looking at local tales of selkies, black dogs, giants, banshees and more. Many of these tales are tied to specific landmarks: churches, chalk drawings, mountains, stone circles. Larrington’s interested in the stories as ways of explaining the origins of such landscape features, but she also reads them in terms of what they have to say about such universal subjects as sex, death and our relationship to the natural world.

I enjoyed this as a work of comparative folklore that’s very attentive to the specificities of place: it’s even got a handy map in the front showing the locations of the tales it looks at. And as such it can perhaps help us rebuild relationships with the landscapes we live in, in this increasingly urbanised age. A few weeks after I read this I visited the Rollright Stones – one of the closest sites featured in the book to where I actually live – with my family and told them the story of the witch and the king and his knights. It was an immensely powerful experience being up there on the ridge of the world, with those stones that people have honoured for generations, feeling connected to those stories that go back centuries if not millennia. Remembering the places our folklore comes from keeps it alive; and in some way preserves the spirit of those places too.

In short – if you’re interested in storytelling not just about the British landscape in general, but about specific places within Britain, in how British people have connected with their environments since the Middle Ages and earlier, The Land of the Green Man is a good place to start.

Review: Pathworking Through Poetry

Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry looks at work from three Celtic poets – Seamus O’Sullivan, Fiona Macleod and, inevitably, W.B. Yeats – that deals with Irish and Scottish mythology, teasing out pagan metanarratives from each poem that then inform Tinker’s pathworkings – a series of guided meditations/visualisations that bring their practitioners face-to-face with Celtic deities, in theory.

The idea’s nice, but the execution is decidedly mixed.

Full disclosure: visualisation, especially in the form it tends to take in Pagan traditions, sets off my woo detectors like little else. This is a me problem, and I probably need to do a lot more reading on the role of imagination in spiritual experience to understand why it works for some people. Suffice it to say that it’s not for me, at this particular moment in time. It’s just unfortunate for Pathworking through Poetry, whose entire spiritual content is basically visualisation.

Although – it has to be said that the pathworkings seem to have very little to do with the poems and the readings Tinker constructs of them (which are themselves pretty cringey, being a mixture of extremely basic close reading and A-level speculation), which begs the question of what the point of the whole endeavour is. I did enjoy the poems themselves, as well as the bits and pieces of folklore Tinker recounts (for example, I was interested to learn that Bride/Bridget is a sun goddess; I hadn’t come across that association before). There’s a certain joy in picking up little tidbits in all kinds of different places, so for that reason I’m thankful to have read this! But it’s not something I’ll read again, or that I need on my shelf.

Review: Gingerbread

TW: suicide.

Helen Oyeyemi’s works partake of the fairytale, steering a perilous course between whimsy and incoherence. They are referential, playful things, using traditional tales to comment slyly on cultural ideas of race, class and gender. And so, Gingerbread, her latest novel: the tale of three women, Margot, her daughter Harriet, and her daughter Perdita. Harriet and Perdita live together in a seventh-floor flat in London which, though faded, shows signs of former grandeur, with its velvet curtains and silver-shaded chandeliers. Their life seems happy, until Harriet discovers Perdita unconscious in bed, having apparently overdosed after a spate of bullying.

Gingerbread is a novel about placelessness. Margot Lee, you see, hails originally from Druhastrana, an eastern European country that, Christopher Priest-like, is not discernible on any map, nor discoverable in any Google search. A nation that has closed its borders, Druhastrana can seemingly only be reached by near-magical means: Margot smuggles herself and her daughter Harriet out in coffins, using a potion that simulates death. Hence Perdita’s near-fatal attempt to return there, to the homeland she’s never really known. This is, in short, a tale about immigration; more specifically, a tale about refugee-hood. Like Mohsin Hamad’s Exit West, it uses fantasy to curtail the actual physical journey away from a home country in order to highlight the lengths people go to in order to achieve it; and the dislocation they suffer when they’ve arrived.

The Lees’ lack of status – their strangeness, their self-sufficient isolation, their witchiness standing in, I think, for a cultural difference that their community rejects them for – stands in direct contrast to the worldliness of their rich benefactors, the Kerchevals, who are thoroughly at home in England and have the mansion to prove it. It’s all leaning into some typically fairy-tale dynamics: the handsome prince, the family psychodrama. But there’s something missing: I just don’t think Gingerbread is as sharp as, say, Boy, Snow, Bird, which uses “Snow White” to look at the toxicity of racism and sexism, or Mr Fox, where the Bluebeard story becomes a stick to beat a misogynistic author with. The fairy-tale resonances, while there, are muffled. I actually do like the way that the titular gingerbread, made to a Lee family recipe that “tastes like revenge”, associates these women with witchery and thus accounts for their social isolation, in a mirroring of the othering that many immigrants experience in real life. But I’m not sure it’s doing a huge amount of work beyond that: it’s an image that illustrates rather than interrogating. The novel’s frame of reference is too broad, there is too much going on, to add up to an emotionally meaningful fairy-tale schema. Try Mr Fox or the short story collection What is Not Yours is Not Yours instead.

Review: The Grass-Cutting Sword

Hah. Now, this is a strange little novella: a very early Catherynne Valente work, now out of print and available only through t’Internet. (It’s her fourth novel, I think? But she’s written about a million, so, yeah, comparatively early.)

It’s a retelling of a Japanese legend in which the god of sea and storms Susanoo is banished from heaven and falls to earth. There, he meets an impoverished peasant family whose eight daughters have been devoured by a dragon – which he promptly vows to slay.

But, alternated with Susanoo’s chapters, we get the point of view of the dragon and each of the eight women he devours one by one, with something like love? or desire?

So: we have this balance between the power of Susanoo and the reverence he gets, and the low status of the eight daughters, who are each devoured on their wedding night, as they’re given one after the other to the same man in payment for the devouring of the one before. They are accorded the same status by the narrative: in fact, the daughters are elevated by their devouring, into an opponent worthy of Susanoo, as they become one with the dragon (their consciousnesses all, apparently, remaining, so the dragon’s mind is eventually a cacophony of voices).

There are, even, some equivalences drawn between Susanoo and the unnamed daughters. The story of Susanoo’s mother, who becomes the earth, sees her abused by her jealous and controlling husband; so that she, too, eventually becomes a devourer. The Grass-Cutting Sword, then, is a tale of women who become monsters as a response to the objectifying gaze of men. It’s a tale that gives a voice to those women, who we see throughout mythology (Grendel’s mother, Medusa, Scylla, Charybdis).

It’s not my favourite of Valente’s works: despite, or perhaps because of, its formal play (the narration of the dragon alternating with the narration of the daughters on a sentence-by-sentence basis), it feels more controlled than her later novels, less inclined to the achingly beautiful flights of prose I love about her work, the sly invention. The Grass-Cutting Sword is an experiment, and feels like it. I wouldn’t recommend starting here; but if you’re already a fan, it’s worth getting your hands on, if only for completeness’ sake.

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of lectures and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, very loosely themed around linguistic topics – that is, they range from “English and Welsh” which looks in detail at the linguistic relationship between those two languages, to “On Fairy Stories”, the famous essay in which Tolkien talks about what a fairy story is and relates their power to the story of Christ.

It is, as you can imagine, not exactly a light read – even for someone who voluntarily re-reads The Lord of the Rings every year. And yet, it’s also not as dense or difficult as you’d expect from its age and Tolkien’s own tendency towards archaism: academic writing tends not to age well at all, and the lectures here were mostly given as early as the 1930s. But Tolkien-the-essayist is quite instructively different from Tolkien-the-novelist; or, rather, the voice of Tolkien-the-essayist has more in common with the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit rather than that of The Lord of the Rings. He has decided opinions, which he expresses through logical and above all lucid argument, sprinkled with colourful and/or poetic metaphors like this one, from the title essay “The Monsters and the Critics”:

it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.

It is this wry, imaginative wit that makes Tolkien-the-essayist such a satisfying companion: it’s easy to follow his argument because he knows how to do rhetoric. And his arguments are worth following because they shed light on his more famous works of fiction: in particular, “The Monsters and the Critics” offers a reading of Beowulf as a poem in which “Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” That is one of the themes of The Silmarillion, in which Morgoth the Dark Lord will never be fully defeated; and it’s a mood that informs The Lord of the Rings, too, with its emphasis on death and decay and the passing of magic.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we only read Tolkien’s non-fiction in the light of his fiction. His Old and Middle English scholarship has largely been discredited (although it was always a thrill as an undergraduate to come across a reference to his work in an academic text). I never studied Beowulf, opting for the alliterative delights of Early Middle English instead, so I don’t know if “The Monsters and the Critics” has anything to do with modern thinking on the poem – but for a reader of fantasy like me, it is a reading full of potential and imagination, opening Beowulf back out from an object of antiquarian study up into an actual poetic work with reservoirs of deep meaning. It’s a reading that can be built on, in other words, rather than one that aims to give a single prescriptive answer, and I’ve always found the first kind of criticism vastly more useful and enjoyable than the second kind. In fact, I wish more academic writing was like this: logical and rhetorical at the same time; inventive, poetic and persuasive; solidly supported by a deep familiarity with the material. This is how to do it, surely.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.