Archives for category: Fairy Tales

I apologize that this post is later than planned but I’ve been unwell.  Now I’m recommending a Fantasy novel full of colour and warmth which was just the tonic I needed. “The Star-Touched Queen” is by Roshani Chokshi, an American author of Indian descent, and it taps into a rich tradition of female story-telling in India. This novel was published in 2016 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. A sequel called “A Crown of Wishes” has recently come out but this has different central characters.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is the story of seventeen year-old Princess Mayavati (Maya) one of the many children of Raja Ramchandra of Bharata. Her mother died shortly after she was born and Maya has been brought up in the royal harem by her numerous step-mothers. Due to a hideously inauspicious horoscope, Maya is treated like “a dead girl walking” and regarded as unlucky. Her only friend is her younger half-sister, Gauri, who loves the fairy stories that Maya tells her about extraordinary Otherworld places such as the Night Bazaar.

Raja Ramchandra, knows that Maya is exceptionally intelligent and that she understands how Bharata is suffering after many years of war. Maya longs for love but because she is “a girl with dark skin and a darker horoscope” she assumes that her fate is to become a scholarly old maid. Her father has other ideas and involves her in a ruthless plan to save his kingdom. When that plan goes wrong, Maya is carried off by a mysterious bridegroom called Amar. He takes her through supernatural realms to his strangely empty kingdom of Akaran.

Amar swears that Maya is his beloved and that they are destined to rule Akaran together but claims that he cannot yet tell her any of the secrets he is obviously hiding. Maya yearns to trust him but a woman who claims to be a friend from a past life warns her not to. During her search for the truth, Maya makes dark discoveries and is forced to go on a perilous journey with a flesh-eating demon. The fate of Bharata and many other realms will depend on whether Maya has the courage to survive her ordeals and recover everything that she has lost.

Chokshi is a captivating storyteller. If my synopsis is a little vaguer than usual it’s because I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises which she springs on the reader during the early chapters of “The Star-Touched Queen”.  However, regular Followers of this blog will probably have already spotted that the plot of this novel is loosely based on the romantic myth of  “Cupid and Psyche”. Elements of this myth, such as the princess who is sacrificed to save her country, the girl who doesn’t know whether she’s married a prince or a monster, the jealous sisters, a broken promise followed by exile and a series of magical ordeals, also feature in Fairy Tales from all over the world. I’ve already recommended one retelling of the Psyche story – C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary  novel “Till We Have Faces” (March 2013). As I wrote in that post, “Most authors would have used the Cinderella-like Psyche as the viewpoint character” but Lewis chose to make her “ugly sister” Orual the focus of his novel. Orual is one of the most complex and memorable villains in all of Fantasy fiction. She is well worth seeking out.

“The Star-Touched Queen” is less original than “Till We Have Faces” but it’s still packed with interesting features. Chokshi has written her novel entirely from the Cinderella-like Maya’s point of view and I have to admit that it works very well. In Bharata, Maya is treated like an outsider in her own family and in the Otherworld she has to learn everything anew. This makes her an easy character for readers to identify with. In the original story (the earliest version is found in “The Golden Ass”, a Latin novel written in the 2nd century CE), Psyche is a rather feeble heroine who is easily influenced and makes stupid mistakes. Chokshi’s Maya is pleasingly strong-minded and cleve but she has been deprived of vital memories. In these circumstances, it’s understandable that “cursed” Maya makes some disastrous misjudgments.  “Till We Have Faces” is about leaps of faith; “The Star-Touched Queen” is more concerned with what is at the core of a person’s identity and how far we are able to shape our own destiny.

The unusual setting is an outstanding feature of “The Star-Touched Queen”. The story takes place in an Indian-based Fantasy world rather than in India itself. Chokshi is clearly very knowledgeable about the cultures and religions of the Indian subcontinent but she uses her sources with freedom and panache. Standard religious ideas such as the concept of Reincarnation and belief in horoscopes are crucial to the plot of “The Star-Touched Queen” but Chokshi has invented her own pantheon of supernatural beings. She’s also plucked dramatic incidents and exotic creatures from a range of Indian Myths and Fairy Tales. I enjoyed this novel because it reminded me of one of my favourite collections of Fairy Tales, a book called “Old Deccan Days or Hindoo Fairy Legends “. These are stories that a South Indian woman called Anna Liberata de Souza remembered being told by her grandmother at the beginning of the 19th century. They are full of magical transformations, terrifying Rakshas (demons), unlucky Rajahs and brave and resourceful heroines. Some of these heroines have to cope with a whole harem full of jealous or spiteful step-mothers and half-siblings – just as Maya does. Depth is added to this standard Fairy Tale situation late in the novel when Maya learns to see things from her most hated step-mother’s point of view.

Chokshi’s ornate prose style won’t please everybody but she has a wonderful visual imagination. “The Star-Touched Queen” is the sort of book which makes you wish that all novels came with illustrations. In the early chapters , Chokshi’s descriptions of the Raja’s court filled my head with vibrant images of multi-coloured silks and shimmering jewels. Maya is adorned for her sinister wedding with henna-patterns of mango blossoms on her skin, a blood-red sari, amethyst earrings, golden hair ornaments and bangles as heavy as shackles. Chokshi is even better at describing her Otherworld. Chapter titles such as “The Palace Between Worlds”, “The Garden of Glass”, “A Room Full of Stars” and “The Memory Tree” hint at the enchantments in store for readers of this novel. Best of all are the sights, scents and sounds of the Night Bazaar where daydreams that look like spun-glass, bones for telling the future, dancing conch-shells, and pearls that taste of “ripe pears and rich honey” are all on offer “beneath a split-sky leaking with magic”. This is a Fantasy world I wanted to explore further and I was pleased to learn more about Maya’s intrepid sister, Gauri, in “A Crown of Wishes”.

One small niggle – Author’s Acknowledgements are now getting as lengthy and emotional as Oscar acceptance speeches and Chokshi’s is a particularly gushing example. I love novels because they represent individual human voices rather than group efforts. Chokshi’s distinctive voice is hers alone and she should be proud of that achievement. Until next time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

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This week I’m recommending the work of an almost forgotten writer of literary Fairy Tales – Mary de Morgan (1850- 1907). During her lifetime she was overshadowed by more famous relatives such as her father, the eminent mathematician Augustus de Morgan, and her brother the great ceramicist William de Morgan and his artist wife, Evelyn. Yet Mary’s distinctive voice survives in her three collections of Fairy Tales. Some of the stories were first told to the children of her artistic friends including the daughters of William and Jane Morris and a nephew of Georgie Burne-Jones – the young Rudyard Kipling. That alone gives them a place in literary history. I’ll describe each of the three collections in turn.

“On a Pincushion and Other Fairy Tales” was published in 1877 with thirty rather gloomy illustrations by Mary’s brother, William. There are seven stories in the collection, most of them with a romance element. The first three are purportedly told by a jet brooch, a shawl-pin and an ordinary pin who are sharing a pin cushion. One story, “The Hair Tree”, is almost novella length. “On a Pincushion…”contains some of Mary’s best work, including her most famous story “A Toy Princess”. Unfortunately this collection doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. You can get paperbacks photocopied from the original book but be aware that these can be a of variable quality and some omit the illustrations. “A Toy Princess” has been reprinted in a number of anthologies, such as “A Book of Princesses” (1963, edited by Sally Patrick Johnson) and “The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales” (1993, edited by Alison Lurie).

A second collection, “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde and Other Stories”, was published in 1880. This consists of seven stories with illustrations by Walter Crane, one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement. The title story features a splendidly wicked princess. “The Heart of Princess Joan” is a striking tale about a long-suffering lover but overall there is less romance than in the first collection. Mary’s final book, “The Wind Fairies and Other Tales”, dates to 1900. There are nine stories charmingly illustrated by Olive Cockerell. Some are melancholy in tone and they don’t all have “happy ever after” endings. “The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde” and “The Wind Fairies” are both available as cheap ebooks or as overpriced paperback reprints. If you possibly can, seek out a Victorian copy of these beautiful books instead.

Many great collections of traditional tales were put together during the 19th century, which then inspired contemporary writers to create original Fairy Tales. I’ve already recommended the work of some of these writers, such as Hans Christian Andersen (see my post of January 2013), Oscar Wilde (November 2013), George MacDonald (January 2013) and Edith Nesbit (March 2016). Mary de Morgan’s Fairy Tales don’t have the wonderful poetic language of Wilde, the zany inventiveness of Nesbit, or the visionary quality of MacDonald. They are closest in style and mood to Andersen’s tales but owe less to traditional prototypes. What these three collections do provide is variety, originality and unpredictability.

Mary’s plots are her own and her stories can be long or short, funny or sad. Some are moral fables with limited supernatural elements, such as “The Story of a Cat” (“The Windfairies”) in which the life of a callous old miser is changed for ever by a strangely beautiful cat. Others are magic and monster-filled quests, rich in disturbing symbolism. In “The Hair Tree” for example, a young man has to get past killer-flowers with the eyes or lips of seductive women as he seeks hair-seeds to cure a selfish Queen of baldness. Some of the stories use biting humour to attack vices such as vanity and greed; others are told with emotional intensity as if the author was suffering along with her characters. Suffering is the word Many of Mary de Morgan’s characters are cruelly punished for what seem quite trivial faults or endure long separations from the people they love. The endings of her stories don’t all follow a set pattern. Some finish with a wedding and others with a funeral.

I’ve long wanted to know more about this author, so I recently bought a book by Marilyn Pemberton called “Out of the Shadows: The Life and Works of Mary De Morgan”. I learned a lot about the talented de Morgan family from this biography but sadly Mary herself remains in the shadows. Dr Pemberton has found out frustratingly little about many periods in Mary’s life. Mary features in other people’s stories as a “spare woman” who can always be relied on to help out family and friends – she nursed William Morris during his last illness. What is clear is that Mary knew a lot about suffering and grief. By the time her first collection of Fairy Tales was published, she had already lost her beloved father and three of her siblings.

When Mary wasn’t painting tiles for her brother, she earned a little money by writing articles and as a typist. She also did voluntary social work in poor areas of London and campaigned for the rights of workers, women, and animals. These interests are reflected in her fiction and help to explain why few of the wealthy and powerful characters in her Fairy Tales are flatteringly portrayed. Some of the issues underlying the stories seem quite topical again. For example, in “Siegfried and Handa” (“On a Pincushion”) an honest shoemaker is put out of work when his fellow villagers start buying cheap shoes from a visiting gnome but these shoes turn out to have a terrible cost in human lives.

Recent interest in Mary de Morgan has focused on her as a Feminist rather than as a storyteller. Her stories do make it obvious that she was frustrated by the codes of behaviour imposed on women of her era and the limited opportunities available to them. In “The Hair Tree”, Trevina a woman who has “transgressed” by refusing to marry for wealth and position is turned into a tigress and can only recover her real shape by being beaten by a man until she bleeds. In “A Toy Princess” a lively real princess called Ursula is replaced by a doll which can only say four things – “If you please,” “No, thank you,” “Certainly,” and “Just so.” Everybody at court is delighted with this polite Toy Princess who has none of the messy emotions of a real woman. Both Trevina and Ursula are given happy endings of a sort in the form of marriages to kindly men but the later stories seem more pessimistic. Mary may have sympathized with Fiorimonde’s plot to dispose of the royal suitors who plan to rule in her name but she doesn’t allow this independent princess to win. In a story called “The Wise Princess” (“The Necklace of Princess Fiormonde”), the princess’s intelligence and learning bring her no happiness and she only finds fulfillment in self-sacrifice.

In the later years of her life, Mary often  seems to have been lonely and depressed but she went on writing and never stopped trying to help people. Failing health led her to move to Egypt for the dry climate (TB was the family curse) where she threw herself into the work of running a progressive “reformatory” for girls. She died in Cairo, a long way from family and friends. The title story in “The Windfairies” helps to sum up why I admire Mary de Morgan. In it, a miller’s daughter called Lucilla is able to see the windfairies who dance in the air and begs to be taught to dance like them. They agree but on condition that Lucilla never tells anyone who taught her to dance. If she does, she will never dance again and harm will befall those she loves. Lucilla becomes a wonderful dancer and is invited to display her skills at a royal court. A jealous Queen demands to know who Lucilla’s teacher was, so that she can be taught too. Lucilla keeps her promise to the windfairies and refuses to reveal the secret, even when she is offered a fortune and threatened with a series of horrible deaths. Like Lucilla, Mary stayed true to her early visions and loyal to the people she loved. She wrote about things she cared about in her own fashion, whether it was popular or not. The price for making the Toy Princess is “four cat’s footfalls, two fish’s screams, and two swan’s songs.” How could you not love an author who invented a detail like that? Until three weeks time..

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

As the Scots are so good at celebrating the arrival of New Year, I’m choosing a Scottish author for my first recommended Fantasy Read of 2017. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a journalist, critic, poet and novelist who is now best remembered for the twelve anthologies of Fairy Tales which he edited, starting with “The Blue Fairy Book” (1889) and ending with “The Lilac Fairy Book” (1910). Lang himself was prouder of two original  stories for children which he wrote – “Prince Prigio” (1889) and “Prince Ricardo” (1893). These two novellas, and a sequence of short stories called “Tales of a Fairy Court” (1907), are set in the invented kingdom of Pantouflia and are collectively known as “The Chronicles of Pantouflia”. You could get the two novellas under this title as a very cheap ebook or search out  an anthology called “My Own Fairy Book”, which includes all of Lang’s original Fairy Tales. Another good choice would be “Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo”, a 1961 edition which has pictures by D.Watkins-Pitchford and an excellent introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Old copies of this, and paperbacks based on it, are quite easy to find.

Lang begins with a potted history of Pantouflia, an ancient kingdom somewhere “up the Danube” and its peace-loving royal family, whose crest is a dormouse, dormant. After relating the story of the spirited founder of the dynasty, Lady Dragonissa, he skips forward to the birth of her ever so many times great-grandson, Prince Prigio. The prince’s rational mother refuses to believe in fairies, so none are invited to the christening party of her first-born son. The fairies come anyway, bringing magical gifts, but one of them puts a curse on Prigio that he “shall be too clever!” Prince Prigio grows up to be the ultimate know-all. He argues about everything and is always right – which makes everyone detest him.

The King and Queen have two ordinary younger sons, Alphonso and Enrico, who are universally liked. When a terrible Firedrake, made of red-hot iron, threatens Pantouflia, the King promises his throne to whichever of the princes succeeds in killing the monster and bringing back its horns and tail. Prigio refuses to try, because he knows that it is traditional for the eldest son to fail , and suggests that this is a job for Enrico. Both the younger princes enthusiastically go off to fight the monster but neither of them returns. Prigio is then shunned by his family and left behind in an abandoned castle, where he finds the fairy gifts and learns to use them. When Prigio falls in love with the English ambassador’s daughter, the idea of being a hero becomes more attractive. With a little magic and a lot of ingenuity, can Prigio kill the monster, save his brothers, win the right girl and make people like him?

The seven stories in “Tales of a Fairy Court” tell us more about the relationship between Prigio and his father King Grognio, and describe some of the adventures which Prigio fitted in before his marriage. The second novella is set 17 years later when Prigio is King of Pantouflia and he and Queen Rosalind have a son called Ricardo. Prince Ricardo is always off fighting “dragons, giants, cannibals, magicians”. He has rescued lots of princesses, including a clever one called Jaqueline, but he isn’t interested in marrying any of them. The trouble is that the quests and fights are too easy for Ricardo because he always uses his father’s fairy gifts, such as the sword of sharpness, the seven-league boots, the magic carpet and the cap of darkness. Through a spell known as Drinking the Moon, Jaqueline discovers that Prigio plans to swap the fairy gifts for ordinary objects. The princess soon has to use more of her magic to protect Ricardo when he goes up against fearsome enemies such as the evil Yellow Dwarf  and The Giant who does not Know when he has had Enough. After Jaqueline is imprisoned by a monster, Prigio goes on an extraordinary journey as part of his plan to save her.

The more I’ve read about the life of Andrew Lang, the more I feel that Prince Prigio was a self-portrait. He knew from his own experience that while the canny Scots admire cleverness, the English tend to distrust it. In one of the “Tales of a Fairy Court”, young Prigio is described as picking up every language he heard and knowing “more ancient Greek and Latin than his tutor before he was six”. Moreover, “he knew the history of everywhere, and all the fairy-stories in the whole world.” Much the same could be said about Lang. He was a Classical scholar, renowned for his translations of Homer, but he also edited the work of British poets and was an expert on Scottish history. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychic Research, wrote adult books on the interpretation of mythology and folklore and the development of religion but he thought it just as important to introduce children to the riches of traditional storytelling. Lang was a man of strong opinions whose sarcastic wit made him many enemies – just as Prigio’s conceited cleverness does. In “Prince Ricardo”, Prigio uses the weight of Stupidity (particularly the stupidity of learned writers on Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible) as a weapon to crush a monster. Lang was a life-long fighter against ignorance and stupidity.

One of his battles was against influential educators of the late 19th century who claimed that Fairy Tales were irrational, violent and bad for young minds. Does that argument sound familiar? In every age well-meaning people have wanted to ban or censor Fairy Tales but, with help of scholars like Andrew Lang and his wife Leonora, the stories survive. Lang didn’t collect directly from oral storytellers and he credited his wife with much of the work of translating and adapting stories from foreign sources. His great contribution to children’s literature was to provide easily accessible, entertaining versions of Fairy and Folk Tales from all over the world. Nobody knew more about the structure and rules of traditional tales than Lang. In his original writing he plays with those rules in what seems a very modern way. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are both enjoyable stories in their own right and amusing commentaries on the way that Fairy Tales function.

Lang hated it when other Victorian writers produced moral tales in which pretty-pretty fairies preached at children. The only preaching in his own stories is done tongue-in-cheek. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are the work of a serious scholar having fun with his own special subjects. For this reason Pantouflia is not the most consistent of Fantasy realms. Lang borrows magical objects from “The Arabian Nights”, tosses in episodes from his beloved Scottish history (Ricardo has an encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie) and provides new endings for some Fairy Tale characters.  He mocks Prigio’s scientific-minded mother for refusing to accept anything that doesn’t fit with her world-view and the very English Ricardo for treating quests as a form of big-game hunting. A scene in which Ricardo hacks up a giant but the pieces cheerily keep on fighting reminds me of the anarchic humour of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Other characters refuse to be constrained by the conventions of the Fairy Tale world – Jaqueline (who turns out to be an Inca princess) is consistently braver and smarter than her beloved Ricardo, while Prigio has no intention of being the disposable elder brother who loses out to the lucky youngest son.

Of all the Fairy Tale princes I read about when I was a child, Prigio was the only one I wanted to marry. He uses brain-power rather than force to solve problems and he doesn’t care if this approach makes people call him a coward. In fact, Prigio is an early example of the Nerd as hero. His method of dealing with the Firedrake is particularly ingenious but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Prigio does have to learn what we would now call people-skills before he can become a good ruler. In “Prince Ricardo”, King Prigio is shown as a worried father, failing to let his son make his own mistakes, but he still saves the day with panache. Lang gave Prigio his own hatred of violence and cruelty. In a new version of “The Goose Girl”, which is one of the darkest of Fairy Tales (see my March 2015 post on “Thorn”), Prigio intervenes to stop the villain being executed in a horrible way. Pantouflia represents the world as Lang would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. You might enjoy his dream-world too. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

During the four years that I have been writing this Fantasy Reads blog, my most-read post as been the one on the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde (November 2013). I’m pleased by this, since Wilde is one of my favourite authors, but a little surprised. It does suggest that there are plenty of people out there who enjoy literary Fairy Tales, so this week I’m recommending a collection of sophisticated stories about fairies by British author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978). Her “Kingdoms of Elfin” came out in 1977 but most of the stories in this collection were first published in The New Yorker. There were several paperback editions during the 1970s and it is still easy to find cheap copies of these. Sadly “Kingdoms of Elfin” doesn’t yet seem to be available as an ebook.

The sixteen stories in this collection don’t have the standard plotlines of traditional Fairy Tales. They are stories about fairies, and the humans unlucky enough to interact with them, set in the Elfin courts of Europe and the Near East. This book should really be called “Queendoms of Elfin”, since each of the Fairy Realms is ruled by a Queen. The male Consorts and Favourites of these long-lived Queens have little power or security of tenure. According to the original blurb, this is the “first authoritative account of Elfin life and manners to appear in mortal language.” There is a sharp and scholarly tone to the authorial voice in these stories. Townsend Warner wrote about fairies as if she had been studying them for years, or even lifetimes. According to her, fairies “are about four-fifths of ordinary human stature, fly or don’t fly according to their station in life, and after a life-span of centuries die like other people – except that as they do not believe in immortality, they die unperturbed.”

In this book, Townsend Warner describes numerous small kingdoms, such Elfhame in Scotland, Brocéliande in Brittany, Castle Ash Grove in Wales, Zuy in the Netherlands, and Catmere in northern England. Each kingdom has its own particular history, customs, fashions and etiquette. Each Fairy Queen has a different form and personality –  from 720 year-old Tiphaine with her weakness for human lovers (in “The Five Black Swans”), “irritable and arbitrary” Queen Balsamine whose only soft spot is a fondness for marmots (in “The Blameless Triangle”) and the lethal Queen of the Peri who has wings “the tranquil colour of moonstones” (in “The Search for an Ancestress”) to hospitable Morgan Spider “so titled because of her exquisite spinning” (in “Visitors to a Castle”) and the shrewish child Queen, Serafica, of Castle Blokula (in “The Mortal Milk”).

The author delights in richness of detail, listing the love gifts given by True Thomas to the Queen of Elfhame ( “acorns, birds’ eggs, a rosegall because it is called the fairies’ pincushion, a yellow snail shell”) and the complete ingredients of a dish called Hunters’ Pie (in “The Power of Cookery”). These include capercaillie, grouse, pheasant, partridge, pimentos, chanterelle mushrooms, juniper berries, anchovy fillets, salami and grated chocolate. It sounds amazing but the consumption of the pie leads to a near death, royal hysteria, and an unjust dismissal. This is typical of the whimsical yet sinister tone of these stories.

Townsend Warner has drawn on the darkest aspects of Fairy lore and stresses their incomprehending cruelty towards humans. In one of the saddest stories (“Foxcastle”) a scholar romantically longs to meet fairies but when he does they view him as an object of scientific curiosity and then casually discard him. A number of the stories follow the fate of changelings; human babies who have been stolen from their cradles and replaced by “sickly and peevish” fairy children. In Elfhame, human children have some of their blood drunk by weasels and replaced by “a distillation of dew, soot, and aconite” to prolong their lifespan ( in “The One and the Other”). They are treated like pampered pets but once their hair begins to turn grey, changelings are thrown out to starve; that is if they haven’t been strangled first for some trivial misdemeanour. Shocking violence lurks in Townsend Warner’s throwaway sentences. Dissident fairies often suffer as much as humans do from the caprices of their Elfin rulers. They may be forced into exile or even condemned to be burned at the stake for daring to suggest that fairies have immortal souls (“The Climate of Exile”).

At this point I must make a confession. Normally I only review books which I have enjoyed but this time I’m recommending a body of fiction that I admire more than like. For me, these exquisitely written stories lack heart but perhaps Sylvia Townsend Warner was accustomed to having to hide her heart. She was a complex woman with multiple talents who knew many of the most famous writers and artists of 20th century Britain (you can find out more about her on the website run by The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society). Her biography of Fantasy author T.H.White is still well worth reading and one of the stories in “Kingdoms of Elfin” ( “The Blameless Triangle”) could be interpreted as a satirical commentary on the intellectual pretensions of wealthy Bohemians like the Bloomsbury Group.

Bisexual Townsend Warner seems to have had an interesting love life before settling down with the poetess Valentine Ackland. “Kingdoms of Elfin” dates to her sad, and perhaps cynical, old age after she had lost her beloved Valentine to alcoholism and breast cancer. The leading characters in many of these stories strive to break away from the conventions of the Elfin courts but usually have their modest hopes or ambitions crushed. There is plenty of black humour in Townsend Warner’s take on Fairy Tales but few happy endings. Still, if you are in the mood for something that is more sour than sweet, this may be just the book for you. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

This month I had been planning to recommend Seth Dickinson’s “The Traitor” – a brilliant but exceedingly grim novel about a woman prepared to do anything to free her country from an oppressive empire. However I do try to keep this blog a politics-free zone and I suspect that all the terrible and tragic things which have been happening lately have left most of us wanting comfort reads. So I’m going for something lighter – “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell. She is an Australian Indie Author who likes to “rewrite Fairy Tales with a twist or two”.  “Spindle” is Book 1 of “The Two Monarchies Sequence” and you can get it as a Kindle ebook or as a paperback.

In a castle surrounded by a hedge of thorns a sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss. This sounds like the perfect happy ending but it is just the beginning of “Spindle”. Nothing is quite what it seems. Polyhymnia (Poly) has been woken by a young-looking man called Luck who is a powerful enchanter rather than a prince. Luck has been sent by the Head of the Wizard Council to rescue the lost Princess of Civet who has been in an enchanted sleep for over 300 years. Civet is now a Republic whose political parties are dominated by wizards but there are factions who want to restore the monarchy. That could be a problem because though Poly can’t remember how she she came to be lying in the royal bedchamber in a splendid dress, she is sure that she isn’t the princess.

Poly was a reluctant lady in waiting to the actual very unpleasant princess. Everyone she knew must now be dead but the wizard who is paying Luck to bring her to the capital has the same name as a man who features in some of her worst memories. Poly doesn’t know if she can trust the infuriatingly vague Luck and she daren’t reveal her true identity. To make matters worse, the curse on her hasn’t been fully broken so she keeps falling asleep and dreaming. Luck claims that Poly is full of strange magic but she insists that, inspite of coming from a magical family, she never had any powers of her own. As the enchanted castle crumbles, Poly is forced to leave with nothing but three books saved from her mother’s library and a small wooden spindle which surprises her every time she finds it in her hand.

The trip to the capital doesn’t go as planned and Luck blames Poly for making his Shift spells go wrong. They encounter a fictional hermit and Poly rescues a “snarl of magic” called Onepiece who is sometimes a puppy and sometimes a small boy.  She also discovers the bizarre fate of the royal family she once knew and finds out something extraordinary about her long-lost parents. Someone is setting lethal magical traps for Luck and Poly. When they take refuge in Luck’s home village, Poly gets to know the elusive enchanter better and learns about modern life and romance. All too soon threatening events force them to continue their journey to the capital where old and new enemies are waiting for Poly…

I’m grateful to Intisar Khanani for recommending Gingell’s consistently enjoyable work.  Both authors are inspired by traditional Fairy Tales but use them in innovative ways (I reviewed “Thorn”, Khanani’s version of “The Goose Girl” in March 2015).  I’ve read other novels based on “Sleeping Beauty”, such as Robin McKinley’s charming “Spindle’s End”, but this one is the most original. Instead of using a standard medieval or an updated modern setting, Gingell has set her story in an invented world lit by three suns known as the Triad.  In the oldest versions of “Sleeping Beauty” the princess’s problems are only made worse by the arrival of her prince since she wakes up to find that she’s given birth to twins and earned the murderous emnity of the evil sorceress who is the prince’s wife (for the gory details see the chapter on this story in Iona and Peter Opie’s “The Classic Fairy Tales”). Gingell is clearly familiar with these versions and picks out a few key elements to reuse in her own fashion. She very reasonably makes Poly highly suspicious of the man who has forcibly kissed her awake, and gives her an unexpected child – the cursed dog/boy Onepiece – to look after. The touching maternal relationship which Poly develops with Onepiece is one of the most attractive things in the novel.

I knew that I was going to enjoy “Spindle” when I read Gingell’s gracious acknowledgement of her debt to the work of one of own my favourite Fantasy authors – the late Diana Wynne Jones. Gingell writes on the dedication page that she “would have liked to bask in that sunshine a little longer.” I feel the same but reading “Spindle” was almost as good as discovering a new Wynne Jones novel. Gingell shares Wynne Jones’ talents for devising intriguing plots with an escalating sequence of startling twists (see my comments on `the Wynne Jones Twist’ in my November 2012 post on “The Lives of Christopher Chant”) and for creating distinctive forms of magic for her characters to use. Luck has magic that “was just a little bit too golden and strong and abundant to make him a mere wizard”. Truth be told, Luck is rather similar to Wynne Jones’ famous wizard Howl from “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Castle in the Air” but I still found him highly entertaining. This absent-minded enchanter can usually make people do what he wants but he meets his match in Poly, who turns out to be capable of using the much rarer powers of antimagic and unmagic. She has an arm that can unmake spells and her continuously growing magical hair is almost a character in itself. As Luck says, “Everything about Poly is beautiful and impossible.”

Like many of the heroes or heroines of Diana Wynne Jones’ novels, Poly is forced to pretend to be someone else while she struggles to work out what is going on and what kind of person she really is. Once she’s awoken, shy Poly has to learn to engage with the world in a way that she never did in her previous life. It’s a pleasure to watch her come out of her shell and into her powers. It is also nice to encounter a Fantasy heroine who wears glasses. The sparky relationship between Poly and Luck is a constant delight. She starts by kneeing her “rescuer” in the stomach and he calls her “a horribly violent princess.” Poly objects to Luck invading her personal space (which he does) and accuses him of never listening to what anybody says but she eventually realizes that he always takes notice of the things which are truly important. I finished the book wanting to see more of this quarrelsome couple but they don’t appear in “Masque”, the entertaining  second volume of “The Two Monarchies Sequence”.  This takes place some years later and features two of the minor characters from “Spindle”.  “Wolfskin”, another book by Gingell set in the same world, has a curse-breaking theme in common with “Masque” and “Spindle”.  If you enjoy forest settings and stories about good witches, you might want to try “Wolfskin” too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we are now into May, I’ve decided to recommend an almost forgotten story which begins on May Eve, traditionally the most magical night of the year. “Borrobil” by William Croft Dickinson is a kind of `missing link’ in British Fantasy. Professor Croft Dickinson was a renowned expert on Scottish history who also wrote ghost stories and Fantasy novels for children. “Borrobil” was first published in 1944 with black and white illustrations by John Morton-Sale. It was reissued as a Puffin paperback in 1964 with a wonderful cover by Pauline Baynes. Very cheap copies of this edition are quite easy to find. None of Croft Dickinson’s fiction seems to be available online but it certainly should be.

Donald and Jean are a young brother and sister spending a holiday in the British countryside. They are fascinated by the Eldritch Wood – `a dark mysterious ring on the crest of the far-off hill’. Most people avoid this wood but Donald and Jean decide to visit it one moonlit night in the hope of seeing something magical. When the children enter the wood they see two bonfires burning at the entrance to a circle of nine standing stones. After Jean impulsively leaps through the flames, the children are transported back into ancient magical times. They are greeted by a bright-eyed little man who turns out to be the good magician Borrobil. He explains that every year on Beltane/May Eve, the King of Summer must defeat the King of Winter. First though, there is going to be a dragon-fight.

The children learn from a Pictish man called Giric why the curse of a dragon descended on the land and how every seven years a brave man tries to kill this massive dragon. The coming of strange children bearing gifts (biscuits) is held to be a lucky omen so they are allowed to watch the hero Morac put Girac’s cunning plan to defeat the dragon into action. After the thrilling combat, Donald and Jean are invited to go with Morac on his journey north to bring home his promised bride, Princess Finella. It is a trip full of perils. The children and their companions face a shape-shifting sorcerer, a malignant dwarf, a brutal giant, the Fairy Queen, fierce raiders from the sea and the dangerous Blue Men who live in the sea. With Borrobil, an elderly gatekeeper, and the Princess Finella, Donald and Jean form an `army of five’ to fight unexpected enemies. Can the children get back to the Nine-Stone Ring in time for the battle between Winter and Summer, Past and Future?

Do you have a special story that you loved when you were young but have never been able to find again? I adored this book as a child but I wasn’t sure of the title and I didn’t know the author’s name. The memories all came back when I recently spotted a copy of “Borrobil”  in a charity bookshop. As soon as I saw the dragon and the dumpy man wearing a brown hat with a long white feather on the cover, I knew that this was the story I had searched for for so long.  “Borrobil” also seems to have gone missing from most histories of Children’s Literature yet Croft Dickinson deserves to be remembered as part of the distinctively British school of academics who wrote Fantasy novels in their spare time. He was a contemporary of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and like the latter he used his specialist knowledge in his fiction. I can see now that the archaeology of  Iron Age Britain was the inspiration for the strange dwellings of the characters in “Borrobil”, such as the underground earth-house of Geric the Pict, or the massive stone tower of the Men of Orc. Don’t know a broch from a crannog? You will after reading this book but it always feels more like an adventure than a history lesson.

There are many similarities between “Borrobil” and Alan Garner’s well known first novel “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, which was published in 1960. In both stories a modern brother and sister meet a benevolent wizard who introduces them to a range of figures from legend and involves them in battles between good and evil. Both books incorporate British legends, fairy tales, and folk customs (such as lighting Beltane Fires on hills) and feature ancient landmarks. Of the two, I actually prefer “Borrobil”. Garner has a more poetic imagination and provides a stronger over-arching plotline but Croft Dickinson’s work has greater warmth and humour and his child characters are more convincing – apparently he wrote this story for his two young daughters.

Jean has more personality than Donald but both siblings are easy for young readers to identify with. They are adventurous (at one point Jean is resourceful enough to rescue her own rescuer) but they don’t suddenly change into sword-wielding super heroes when they enter a Fantasy realm. Jean and Donald sometimes get frightened, cross or tired and they never do anything that a normal child couldn’t do with a little luck and courage. If the children are ordinary, the people they meet certainly aren’t. Geric is a close-mouthed deep thinker who uses Fairy Tale tricks to defeat supernatural enemies. Morac is a warrior hero with a sword-stroke powerful enough to split a giant in two and Finella is a princess as kind and brave as she is beautiful. Best of all though is the story-spinning, poem-making, riddle-solving magician Borrobil.

Parts of this story are quite grim and scary but one of the reasons I enjoyed it as a child was that I never felt anything truly terrible would happen to Donald and Jean as long as smiling Borrobil was around. He practises traditional types of magic, such as rubbing snake-grease on his eyes to see things at a distance or carrying fern-seed gathered by moonlight to make himself invisible. Borrobil also uses wisdom and knowledge to defeat his enemies rather than force and he’s the embodiment of the word merry. There is real sadness at the end of the book when the children realize that they must leave the past and never see Borrobil again.

Croft Dickinson did write a sequel called “The Eildon Tree” (1947) in which a slightly older Donald and Jean meet another magical figure, Thomas the Rhymer, and are transported back to an alternative version of 13th century Scotland. Unfortunately vintage copies of this book are rare and expensive. I hope this post will help to make William Croft Dickinson’s fiction better known. I’d love to see his work back in print. Enjoy the merry month of May. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk