Archives for category: Fairy Tales

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…









This holiday week I’m recommending some entertaining dragons. Do you have any favourite Fantasy authors who are guaranteed to cheer you up when you are in a fit of the glooms? One of mine is E.Nesbit. She is famous for classic novels such as `The Railway Children’ and `Five Children and It’ but she also wrote delightful modern Fairy Tales. Modern in 1900 that is, which is when `The Book of Dragons’ was first published. The eight stories in this collection had previously appeared in `The Strand’ magazine, the original home of Sherlock Holmes. Cheap paperback copies of `The Book of Dragons’ are fairly easy to find or you can download the text for free on most e-readers. Better still, find a copy of `The Complete Book of Dragons’ a 1972 edition which contains an extra story `The Last of the Dragons’ and witty illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This book has also been republished under the title of `The Last of the Dragons and Some Others’.

Nesbit’s funny and fast-paced stories all feature intrepid young people who have to deal with monsters, including a clever cockatrice (in `Kind Little Edmund or the Caves and the Cockatrice’), a cat-eating manticora (in `The Book of Beasts’) and lots and lots of dragons. One story is set in Cornwall `before what you call English History began’ (The Last of the Dragons’) while two start in Victorian London (`The Deliverers of their Country’ and `The Ice Dragon or Do as You are Told’) and contrast everyday life with some very strange happenings. Others are set in invented realms, like the Kingdom of Rotundia where `all the animals were the wrong sizes’ (`Uncle James or the Purple Stranger’) or have typical Fairy Tale backgrounds with a distinctive twist or two – such as a royal pack of hippopotamuses in `The Fiery Dragon or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold’ and a griffin who does housework in `The Island of  the Nine Whirlpools’. Like traditional tales, Nesbit’s stories often claim to explain the origin of something, ranging from the English climate (`The Deliverers of the their Country’) to the first cat (`The Dragon Tamers’).

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was an unconventional woman who flouted many of the rules of Victorian morality.  She cut her hair short, earned her own living by selling her poems and stories to magazines, was a campaigning socialist and enjoyed what we might now call an `open marriage’. She had three children and also brought up her husband’s two children by their housekeeper as her own. Nesbit was too busy to be the type of ideal mother who appears in `The Railway Children’. She was sometimes neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and she herself claimed that she retained a child’s mind in a grown-up’s body. All this shows in her writing in various ways.

Nesbit is the most unstuffy of Victorian authors and her stories are seldom preachy. She knew what children liked, so there are never any boring bits in her Fairy Tales and the plots get underway very quickly. For example, in `The Book of Beasts’ a little boy unexpectedly becomes king of his country on the very first page. Nesbit remembered how children think and feel – especially the kind of children who frequently get into trouble. The behaviour and motivation of her young characters is always convincing, even in her Fantasy stories, so you’ll believe that the bizarre things which happen to `Kind Little Edmund’ are due to his laudable desire to `find out new things that nobody has thought of but me’. Above all, like the writers of many of Pixar’s films, Nesbit has a sense of humour which appeals to both children and adults.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am keen on dragon-centred Fantasy. I particularly admire the variety of Nesbit’s dragons. They can be clever or stupid, gentle or ferocious, huge or tiny. There is a dragon made of ice, and a dragon that sets everything on fire, a smooth-talking purple dragon, a rapacious red dragon and a giant yellow dragon who turns out to be a devoted mother. In `The Deliverers of their Country’ an `Alarming Plague of Dragons’ begins with a dragon small enough to get in a little girl’s eye and swiftly progresses to people finding earwig-sized dragons in their soap and butter, dog-sized dragons steaming in their baths and sheep-sized dragons scorching their bedsheets. Nesbit, who also wrote Horror stories, isn’t afraid to make her bigger dragons scary. There are jaunty descriptions of these monsters gobbling up animals, people, and in one case an entire football match `players, umpires, goal-posts, football and all’ (`The Book of Beasts’).  A major function of dragons in literature (and of dinosaurs in movies) is to eat the bad guys before being defeated by the good guys. Nesbit has her dragons munch on the kinds of people she disliked, such as greedy politicians, arrogant aristocrats and big-game hunters. Who would you put on the dragon-food list?

There is a two-headed dragon that only eats kings and queens in a story called `Billy the King’ which you can find in another collection called `E.Nesbit Fairy Stories’, which was published in 1977 and edited by Naomi Lewis.  I wouldn’t put Nesbit in the very first rank of Fairy Tale writers. Her stories are always witty and charming but they lack the poignancy and the haunting qualities of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my `Snow Queen’ post of January 2013) or Oscar Wilde (see post of November 2013). Where Nesbit does score highly is with her female characters. They are not just there to cast evil spells or to look pretty and be rescued. In most of her stories, the girls are as smart, brave and resourceful as the boys. As plucky Jane says to her brother in `The Ice Dragon’, `I’m not so stupid as you think, George’. If you believe that Feminist Fairy Tales are a recent development try `The Last of the Dragons’ which features `the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe’. She won’t tolerate being rescued from a dragon by a prince in the traditional manner. The princess persuades her weedy but nice prince that they should tackle the dragon together. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to seek out the treasure that is E.Nesbit’s dragon stories. Happy Easter.





My Christmas curiosity is a Fairy Tale novel by a remarkable 19th century Irish-woman, Frances Browne (1816-1879).`Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was first published in 1856 and seems to have been in print ever since. It is sometimes  known by the longer titles of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and its Tales of Fairy Times’ or `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and the Tales it Told’. To add to the confusion,`Secret Garden’ author Frances Hodgson Burnett introduced a reprint called `Stories from the Lost Fairy Book’. I found a vintage copy on a charity bookstall but you can get `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as a very cheap ebook or even download it for free. Be wary though, some of the ebook versions leave out much of the delightful framing story about a little girl called Snowflower and her grandmother’s magical chair.

`In an old time, long ago, when the fairies were in the world’ orphan Snowflower lives with her stern grandmother, Dame Frostyface. The only good piece of furniture in their tiny cottage is a `great armchair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.’ When Dame Frostyface has to visit her cross aunt, she leaves Snowflower alone in the cottage but tells her that if she wants company, the armchair will tell her one story a day and if she needs to go anywhere, the armchair will take her. Snowflower enjoys the stories told to her by `a clear voice from under the velvet cushion’ but after a few weeks she runs out of food. So she asks the chair to take her the way her grandmother went.

During the journey, Snowflower stops at the palace of King Winwealth and Queen Wantall who are celebrating the birthday of their daughter Princess Greedalind with a seven day feast. The kingdom was a happy place when it was jointly governed by Winwealth and his brother Wisewit but one midsummer day the good prince disappeared in the forest. Now the King is depressed and everyone in the capital city seems greedy and discontented. The courtiers and the palace servants treat Snowflower with disdain but Winwealth thinks it might be amusing to see the moving chair and find out if it can really speak. On each of the seven evenings of the feast, the chair tells a story at Snowflower’s bidding. When Wantall and Greedalind try to steal the wonderful chair, its secret is finally revealed.

After reading this book, I wanted to find out more about the author. I was shocked to discover that Frances Browne was blinded by smallpox when she was only 18 months old. She was the seventh of twelve children in a Donegal family that had fallen on hard times. Apparently she used to bribe her siblings to read books to her by doing their share of the housework. Frances soon began composing poems and short stories, which she dictated to one of her sisters. As a young woman, Frances intrepidly moved to Edinburgh and later to London, where she supported herself by her writing. I would never have guessed that `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was written by a blind person. This book glows with light and colour and is full of excellent descriptive detail. The `Blind Poetess of Ulster’ seems to have lived in the beautiful world of her imagination.

The last paragraph of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ acknowledges the influence of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’) but Frances Browne was one of the earliest British writers to make up new Fairy Tales. The seven stories told by the chair feature kings and princesses, fairies, merpeople and magical animals and birds but they aren’t retellings of traditional folk tales. The plots are original and full of striking incidents, such as a shepherd being forced to shear a pack of shaggy wolves by moonlight (`The Greedy Shepherd’) or two children having to rescue their fathers from a fairy spell which has condemned them to plant acorns all day and all night (`The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’). There is a great deal of humour in these gentle stories which often comes out in character-names  – like King Stiff-step of Stumpinghame, who rules a kingdom where large feet are admired (`The Story of Fairyfoot’).

The seven tales are cleverly integrated into the framing story. Some of them turn out to be the stories of guests at the royal feast, while Queen Wantall and her dreadful daughter miss the moral of the tale every time and covet the treasures won by virtuous behaviour. Yes, some of the tales do have a moral but is that a bad thing if they encourage children to be content with what they have, polite to everyone they meet (even fish) and kind to old people (even grumpy ones)? Frances Browne was no Puritan. Her good characters make other people happy and are merry themselves, as in the story of a fiddler called Merrymind who brings joy back into the lives of Dame Dreary and her people. This book shows great sympathy for poor children who suffer hardship and humiliation, presumably because the author had experienced real poverty herself. There is also nostalgia for rural life in a pre-industrial age before `the hum of schools’ and `the din of factories’ frightened the fairies away.

I’ve chosen `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as my Christmas book because in three of the stories wonderful things happen at Christmas – a young girl returns home from fairyland in a chariot drawn by six white horses (`The Story of Childe Charity’);  the seapeople sleep for the only time in the year, allowing two of their captives to plan an escape (`Sour and Civil’); and a magical cuckoo brings leaves from the two trees that grow at the end of the world (`The Christmas Cuckoo’). The leaves of the Golden Tree bring riches but the leaves of the Merry Tree give happiness. Which would you choose? I wish all my readers a joyful Christmas or Holiday season. Until next year…



I usually recommend books which are easy to get hold of but this week I’m making an exception to that rule for the sake of an unjustly neglected writer – Barbara Leonie Picard (1917-2011). She was a self-taught expert on the mythology and folklore of a wide range of cultures and her retellings of myths and legends remain popular. Many people, including me, were first introduced to classics such as`The Odyssey of Homer’  and the `Stories of King Arthur and His Knights’ through Picard’s work. It is her own fiction which seems to have been forgotten. Picard wrote some remarkable historical novels for children including `Ransom for a Knight’ (1956) and `One is One’ (1965), the story of a boy who runs away from a monastery to pursue his dream of becoming a knight. The latter is one of the saddest books I know but also one of the most inspiring.

Picard’s greatest contribution to Fantasy is the fifty or so original fairy tales she wrote between 1942 and 1950. These were published in a series of illustrated volumes, none of which is easy or cheap to obtain.  The titles alone made me want to track them down. There is `The Mermaid and the Simpleton` (1949), `The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter’ (1951) and `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ (1954) both with wonderful drawings by my favourite illustrator, Charles Stewart, and `The Goldfinch Garden’ (1963). `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ was reprinted in 1968 with two additional stories under the title `Twice Seven Tales’.  In 1994 Oxford University Press finally brought out a mass-market paperback called `Selected Fairy Tales’ which contains sixteen stories from these collections, chosen and introduced by the author herself. Plenty of book-dealers offer this volume. Unless I say otherwise, you can assume that the stories I refer to below are in `Selected Fairy Tales’.

Fairy tales seem to have been a comfort to Picard during her lonely childhood (she was educated by a governess and hardly ever saw her French father) while as an adult she read, translated and retold hundreds of stories from all over the world. She knew exactly how fairy tales and medieval romances were put together and she used many of the techniques of traditional story-telling in her own short fiction. Picard’s crystal-clear prose is beautiful but not consciously poetic like Oscar Wilde’s (see my November 2013 post on his Collected Fairy Tales); it never impedes the flow of the story. Dialogue is sparingly used and the settings and characters for each tale are swiftly introduced in a straightforward manner. Magic is taken for granted and you can be sure of plenty of action and no boring bits.

Another traditional feature is the use of repeated motifs with slight variations: so a farmer may dream three times that he has been visited by the spirit of the corn-fields (`The Corn Maiden’), a king may perform three nearly impossible tasks for three witches (`The Third Witch’) or a nobleman may kill three beloved animals in the hope of working a spell (`Betrade and Dominic’). All the character-types you might expect appear in Picard’s fairy tales. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses, noble knights and beautiful ladies, plucky goatherds, kind shepherds and clever servant-girls, witches and wizards, mermaids and nixies, fairies and djinns, woodland spirits and talking animals. The leading characters often do traditional things, like getting lost in woods, going on quests for magical objects, and falling hopelessly in love at first sight.

Yet there are some differences between Picard’s carefully crafted stories and authentic folk and fairy tales. There is rather more description than a traditional story-teller would have used, partly because the rural backgrounds of many of the stories are less familiar to most modern readers than they would have been to the original audience. So Picard makes it clear exactly what a ploughboy (in `The Ploughboy and the Nixie’) or a milkmaid (in `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’) does for a living and she is particularly good at evoking the colours and scents of the countryside by mentioning specific flowers. She also tells us more about the inner thoughts of her leading characters than a traditional story-teller would and there is a greater emphasis on character development. These are `transformative’ tales in which extraordinary events can change the whole outlook of the people involved. A flint-hearted witch may find that she is capable of love after all (`The Third Witch’) or an arrogant young ruler may discover the meaning of true friendship (`The King’s Friend’).

In the introduction to `Selected Fairy Tales’ Picard stated that she began writing fairy tales to amuse herself and `forget the sad war days’ while she was on duty as a firewatcher during the Second World War. So are these jolly morale-boosting stories in which good always defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after? Mainly, no. There are a few light-hearted stories, such as `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’ in which the sprite makes a hash of being a milkmaid, or the title story in `The Goldfinch Garden’ (about a lazy gardener and a wise old woman) but most of Picard’s fairy tales have a serious, even melancholy tone. They depict the world as a harsh place in which aristocrats mistreat their servants, princes fail to keep their promises, widows and orphans may be desperately poor and a mermaid can be sold to the highest bidder and kept in a cage (as in the title story in `The Mermaid and the Simpleton’). The endings of Picard’s stories are pleasingly unpredictable – sometimes joyful, sometimes sad.

I have noticed two recurring themes in Picard’s work which add depth to her stories. The first theme I shall call `the impossible couple’. In many of Picard’s fairy stories, two people fall in love but face terrible obstacles because of social or racial differences, ancient feuds or inflexible moral codes. So in `Heart of the West Wind’ there is no chance that a stableboy and an Emperor’s daughter will be allowed to marry; it is scandalous for a Christian young woman to want to run off with a pagan faun (`The Faun and the Wood Cutter’s Daughter’); and a boy and a water-spirit are kept apart by the physical differences between their worlds (`The Ploughboy and the Nixie’). Two tales depict the fairy people trying to prevent one of their own staying with a human (`Count Alaric’s Lady’ and `Diccon and Elfrida’) and the intense relationships between young men in some of the stories could now be read as `impossible couples’ too (try `The Ivory Box’). Sometimes a way is found for the star-crossed lovers to live together but almost as often flight or death seem the only options.

That brings me to the second recurring theme – escape from a cruel world. Some of Picard’s characters suffer overwhelming problems. In `The Corn Maiden’ a young farmer is about to lose everything he owns, while in `The Ivory Box’ a betrayed husband faces execution for a crime he didn’t commit, but magical escape routes are offered to both of them. Of all the stories by Picard which I read as a child, the one which had most impact on me was that of `Little Lady Margaret’ – a shy girl who escapes an arranged marriage by weaving herself into the beautiful world of a tapestry that she has created. Barbara Leonie Picard’s fairy tales seem to have been written to provide her with a refuge from the troubles of her own life. Perhaps they can do the same for you. Until next time….



This week I’m recommending – with some reservations – a collection of  fantastical stories from the Near East which may be even older than the famous `Arabian Nights’. `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’ more than lives up to its title. The collection survives in a single damaged manuscript found in Istanbul, which sounds like something out of a story in itself. The first translation from Arabic into English, by Malcolm C.Lyons, was only published last year. You can get it as an ebook but I splashed out on the sumptuous turquoise and gold hardback. A Penguin Classics paperback edition is due out in July.

In one of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ – `The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures and the Strange Things That Occurred’ – groups of treasure-hunters have to overcome a series of alarming obstacles, such as rock-throwing and sword-wielding statues, a steel-toothed serpent and a brazen lion, before they can get at the treasure. Before you reach the good bits of  `Tales of the Marvellous’ you will have to to get past the introduction and a first story with vital sections missing. The introduction by Robert Irwin is very erudite but seems designed to baffle and irritate readers in search of basic information. So, let me summarize. This collection was put together around the 10th century and may originally have contained 42 tales. Only 18 now survive in a manuscript which was produced in Egypt or Syria sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. A few of the stories also occur in the much larger collection known as `The Thousand and One Nights’ or the `Arabian Nights’.

The`Tales of the Marvellous’ are more elaborate in style and structure than most folktales. During the introduction, Irwin sniffily refers to the language of these stories as `vulgar’ but all I can say is that it doesn’t show in this translation. Some of the stories include lengthy passages of poetry which don’t add much to the plot. I rather enjoyed the lush love poems but feel free to skip them. Ditto, the extremely dull prophecies of the Monk Simeon in `The Story of Sa’id Son of Hatim al-Bahili and the Marvels He Encountered at Sea’. Framing devices are a particular feature of Arab storytelling. The best known example involves Sheherazade saving her own life by telling her homicidal husband a story every night. In this collection, many of the stories are told to entertain a bored, depressed or grieving ruler. Within this framework, a number of characters may each tell their own  story – the complex tale of `Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Sea and Islands’ has six narrators. These intricate sets of stories within stories mean that a mere 18 tales  can add up to quite a long book.

The collection features a variety of tale-types. There are love and adventure stories, tales about clever tricksters and people who suffer from bizarre misfortunes, and stories that belong to a tear-drenched sub-genre defined in the introduction as `Relief after Grief’. As you would expect from the title, there is a strong supernatural element in many of the tales. In these pages you will meet magicians and sorceresses, men and women transformed into animals and birds, good and evil jinn, mermaids and sea-monsters, killer statues and lethal enchantments. If you are wondering whether these stories are suitable for children, bear in mind that Arab folktales tend to contain more sex scenes than their European equivalents.  For example, in a story whose basic plot is similar to `Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, a prince hiding in a strange house eats a bite of food from each of 40 plates and sleeps with a different virgin in each of 40 beds. There are high levels of violence and cruelty too (the good get married, the bad get crucified) yet the stories often celebrate compassion and forgiveness. This book is an uncensored window onto a very different time and place. Be warned that some of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ contain passages which you may find offensive – hence the `with reservations’ recommendation.

Irwin suggests that the original compiler of the tales was probably a woman-hater, but in my view it is the male characters who come out badly. Few of the kings and caliphs are portrayed very favourably, not even the famous Harun al-Rashid who is shown as a jealous drunkard. The handsome heroes of many of the tales are passive figures who burst into tears when faced with misfortune and have to be rescued by their more intrepid mothers or girl-friends or by kindly older men. `Tales of the Marvellous’ is full of strong woman. Among them are  a `high-minded and open-hearted’ slave girl who risks a long journey to find her lost master, a clever princess who has been turned into a horse, Julnar of the Sea `the most skilful sorceress on the face of the earth’, and a weaver’s wife who comes up with a cunning plan to make her timid husband a rich man. One story begins with a rape but the victim is supported by her brother and goes on to become a warrior queen. The tale of `Arus al-`Ara’is (the Bride of Brides) is told in order to demonstrate how wicked and deceitful women can be, but its magnificent villainess behaves like the heroine of a Margaret Atwood novel – inventively punishing every man or jinni who treats her as sex object rather than a person.

The treasure-hunt tales, such as `The Quest for the Crown’ will have particular appeal for Fantasy buffs. Reading about a hero who endures ordeals of fire and water and battles magical enemies with the aid of a wise centaur in order to recover the crown that contains the `Stone of Victory’ is like finding the lost source of one of the great rivers of Fantasy. My favourite tale though is `The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle’  – a splendidly loopy double romance (or triple if you count a pair of star-crossed lions who are important characters). The subtitle truthfully claims that `It Contains Strange and Marvellous Things’. The plot keeps veering off in unexpected directions and is full of exotic characters, such as an evil ruler who has a special death-dealing throne `for when he was angry’, a prince who has been suckled by a lioness, a queen who dresses up as her own vizier to woo the hero, and the surprisingly helpful King of the Ostriches. If you want to find out the true identity of the white-footed gazelle, what role is played by the malicious Queen of the Crows, or who turns our hero into a Nile crocodile – well you will just have to read `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’. Until next time….


This week I’m back to the theme of modern writers inspired by traditional Fairy Tales. In this case, one particular tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm – `The Goose Girl’. Do you remember the plot? A queen sends her daughter to marry a prince who lives in a far away land. The princess rides a white horse called Falada and carries a handkerchief stained with three drops of her mother’s blood for magical protection. During the journey the princess’s maid refuses to wait on her. After the princess loses the magic handkerchief, the maid threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give up her fine clothes and her beautiful horse. When they arrive at the royal court, the maid claims to be the prince’s bride and tells the king to give her lazy servant some menial work to do. The true bride is forced to look after the king’s geese and deal with the unwanted attentions of a goose boy, while the false bride enjoys a life of luxury. Can the real princess regain her identity and win back her prince?

In his recent book `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’ (see my post of May 2014), Philip Pullman comments,`the princess/goose girl has to give second place, as far as enterprise and vigour are concerned, to the wicked maidservant who deserves a longer story.’ He adds, `It’s hard for a storyteller to make an attractive character out of a meek and docile victim who doesn’t argue or fight back once…’  I have to disagree with Pullman about that since two other Fantasy authors, Shannon Hale and Intisar Khanani, have written novels based on this Fairy Tale which each make the meek princess into a very attractive heroine. Where Pullman sees a docile victim, Hale and Khanani see a brave young woman who endures a dramatic change in circumstances with dignity and grace. Hale’s book, which is simply called `The Goose Girl’, was published in 2003 and is the first in a series of interlinked novels known as `The Books of Bayern’. Khanani’s novel `Thorn’ came out in 2012 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. I like both of these surprisingly different novels but I’ve decided to concentrate on `Thorn’ this week and to recommend one of Hales’ `Books of Bayern’ next time.

`Thorn’ begins in the small country of Adania, whose Queen is being visited by the King of the much larger and more powerful land of Menaiya. Gentle Princess Alyrra of Adania is despised by her mother and viciously bullied by her brother. She prefers to spend her time in the palace kitchens or in the company of a friendly wind. Alyrra is shocked to learn that the King has come to ask her hand in marriage for his son, Prince Kestrin. A strange magician appears in her bedroom to warn her that the enemies of Menaiya may try to attack her during the journey to the capital city, Tarinon. One of those enemies is a terrifying sorceress who has an implacable hatred for the whole royal house of Menaiya.

Alyrra is sent off to Tarinon with a lady in waiting, Valka, who has a particular grudge against her and a wild white horse who is an unkind gift from her brother. During the journey, Alyrra discovers that her lady in waiting is in league with the sorceress. A spell forces the princess to swap bodies with Valka and never to tell anyone what has happened. Once they reach Tarinon, Valka blackens the character of her `lady in waiting’ and gets her sent to work as a goose-herd. At first, Alyrra’s only ally is Falada, who reveals that he belongs to an ancient race of talking horses. Alyrra, renamed Thorn, makes friends among the animal-keepers and accepts her humble new role. It is only when she learns more about the threat to Prince Kestrin, and the dark side of life in Tarinon, that Alyssa/Thorn is forced to take up the challenge of becoming a princess again.

The original tale of `The Goose Girl’ may be short but it is packed with bizarre and mysterious details such as the spell of the bloodstained handkerchief, the white horse who is able to talk even after his head is cut off, and a protective wind which the princess can summon (contrary to what Pullman says, she does sometimes fight back). It is fascinating to see how distinctively Khanani and Hale have interpreted these details so that two books which, inevitably, have much the same plot have ended up very different in tone. `Thorn’ is the darker of the two novels, which probably makes it truer to the source material. When I was a child, `The Goose Girl’ was never one of my favourite Fairy Tales. I was upset by the malevolence and cruelty in the story, which culminates in an inventively nasty execution. Khanani has created a fictional world in which such an execution becomes terrifyingly plausible and, as in the original, innocents suffer and die. After becoming a goose-herd, Alyssa finds out how hard life is for the working classes in Tarinon and how little hope they have of obtaining justice even when they are victims of appalling crimes. Once she crosses paths with Red Hawk, a notorious thief/vigilante, the narrow line between justice and revenge becomes one of the major themes of the story.

`Thorn’ isn’t a perfect novel. The strange experience of living in someone else’s body isn’t fully explored, the invented Red Hawk subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and I found it annoying that the reason for Valka’s grudge against the princess isn’t revealed until near the end of the book. Still, Khanani writes with passion and she has the gift of making you care about her characters. Right from the first chapter I ached with sympathy for shy Alyssa whose self-confidence has been destroyed by her abusive family. Khanani implies that it is not so much the spell that keeps Alyssa quiet about what has happened, as her genuine belief that ambitious Valka is more suited to the role of royal bride than herself. Alyssa has never wanted power but that, as Falada points out, only makes her `a better princess than most’. Noble Falada acts as the voice of conscience, urging Alyssa to honour the betrothal vows she made to Kestrin and to strive to set things right in the kingdom she is destined to rule. Later, when Alyssa is almost overwhelmed by the evil and suffering around her, one of the animal-keepers sensibly tells her to, `Start somewhere and keep going.’

Even if you are thoroughly familiar with the Grimms’ `Goose Girl’, you’ll find that `Thorn’ has surprises in store. This is partly because Khanani has added several subplots – including an important one explaining the curse on the royal family of Menaiya – and partly because of her original interpretations of the leading players. Her `wicked maidservant’ character, Valka, is almost as insecure as the princess she has replaced. Valka has no empathy for others and refuses to take responsibility for her own actions but that makes her easy to manipulate. `The Goose Girl’ could have been rewritten as a Romance with the disguised princess as a Cinderella-figure, but Khanani’s Kestrin is no Prince Charming. He is clever, calculating and verging on ruthless. Alyrra is afraid of Kestrin and the scenes in which he probes her identity crackle with tension. She warns the prince that he cannot bully or cajole her into trusting him and her assessment of his character becomes a matter of life or death. At no stage is this the sort of conventional love story that a commercial publisher would probably have demanded. Khanani is an `Indie author’ and `Thorn’ is about a woman finding her place in the world and accepting the painful responsibilities that come with it. In spite of Pullman’s opinion of the goose-girl princess, I hope you will find Alyrra a heroine worth reading about. Until next time…..




This week I’m recommending another collection of Fantasy stories which offers new interpretations of traditional tales. `Toad Words and Other Stories’ by T.Kingfisher contains seven short stories, one novella and three poems. Most of these items have appeared elsewhere but the novella is original to this collection, which came out in 2014. T.Kingfisher is a pen-name for American writer and illustrator, Ursula Vernon. She is one of a growing number of professional writers who are choosing to self-publish their work as ebooks, so there is no print version of this one. Don’t be put off by the self-published bit, even if the author has called her imprint Red Wombat Tea Company.

Kingfisher begins her introduction by confessing that she didn’t think she was capable of `doing something so disciplined’ as writing short stories. She was wrong. Her imagination may be wild but Kingfisher uses language with precision and elegance. While reading `Toad Words’, I frequently found myself highlighting sharply expressed truths, such as, `But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers.’ One of the most charming stories in this collection, `Night ‘, should probably be classified as metaphysical Science Fiction; the remainder comfortably count as Fantasy. They shed a fresh, and sometimes disconcerting, light on famous works of Fantasy such as Peter Pan (`Never’) and `The Little Mermaid’ (`The Sea Witch Sets The Record Straight’) or on Folk Tales (`Toad Words’, `The Wolf and the Woodsman’, `Bluebeard’s Wife’, `Boar & Apples’) and traditional Ballads (`Loathly’).

One of the poems includes the lines, `Fairy tales are human things which we have chewed over since before we could eat solid food.’ Kingfisher has clearly chewed over them more than most and she delights in asking unexpected questions about Fairy Tale characters, such as what happened to the `bad’ sister condemned to have frogs and toads drop from her mouth whenever she spoke? In `Toad Words’ the delightful answer is that she learns to distinguish between toad words, such as desiccated, obligation and matchstick, and frog words, such as purple, murky and squill, and to use them creatively to save rare amphibians. As someone with a particular fondness for amphibians (my garden is full of them) I adored this story. It’s a good example of the author’s wit and dry humour.

Kingfisher also asks pertinent questions such as, `What  might have happened if wife-killer Bluebeard finally married a woman who did feel that her husband’s privacy was more important than her own curiosity?’ and `Why was Red Riding Hood’s grandmother living in the middle of a deep dark wood, and who should you be more wary of – a shy wild animal or an angry, axe-wielding woodman?’  Kingfisher’s take on `Little Red Riding Hood’ is full of funny lines but is just as brutal as the original story. In this version, the grandmother is being stalked by a creepy admirer determined to force her into an abusive relationship. In several of the stories, Kingfisher writes angrily about the sufferings inflicted on women whose only power is their inner strength. `Loathly’ is an almost unbearably sad tale of a woman who has become a monster through no fault of her own. For her, as in real life, marriage to a handsome prince does not automatically make for a happy ending. In `Never’, Kingfisher focuses on the horrors that might happen when a young girl lured to Neverland by Peter Pan has the temerity to grow up. She chooses to bring out the very dark side of Peter Pan, which is definitely there in Barrie’s work (see my August 2014 post on `Peter and Wendy’) but her interpretation of the famous crocodile is original and nastily convincing.

Several of the stories in `Toad Words’ can be seen as reactions against the Disneyfication of Fairy Tales. If you only know the Sea-Witch from the Disney film of `The Little Mermaid’, you’ll be surprised by the motives she reveals in `The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight’. This shrewd, unsentimental but compassionate witch sees all too clearly that the dim-witted mermaid will never attract the prince she has set her heart on. I found the ending to this story more moving than the one in Hans Christian Anderson’s original version. `Boar & Apples’ sounds like a recipe but this novella contains Kingfisher’s interpretation of `Snow White’. She has fun with references to Snow White’s famous costume in the classic Disney film – `The seamstress had always had a great desire to sew something with puffed sleeves, and the fact that Snow stared at them with great astonishment and mild indignation did nothing to diminish her moment of glory.’

Kingfisher also does full justice to the bleak and cruel aspects of the tale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm (see my May 2014 post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’). As in my own story,`Iron Shoes’,  the Queen is Snow’s real mother but after that the two versions diverge. Kingfisher warns her readers not to waste sympathy on this murderous Queen. The magic mirror does `not have to seduce her with words or visions; she came essentially pre-seduced.’ The Queen orders a Huntsman to kill her teenage daughter, Snow, and bring back her heart. Since this isn’t the kind of Feminist Fantasy in which all the male characters are villains or wimps, he does no such thing. The Huntsman leaves Snow in the forest. What are you more likely to find in forests, dwarves or wild boar? So, seven talking pigs it is then. After this surprise, you realize that the story is going in an unexpected direction. Can her experiences in the forest help this practical princess to survive the inevitable confrontation with her jealous mother? Read `Toad Words and Other Stories’ to find out. Self-publication under a new name has allowed Ursula Vernon to escape from being pigeon-holed as an author and illustrator of cosy children’s books and write for adults about `hard, ugly, things.’ I hope that other authors will follow her brave lead. Until two weeks time…