Tuesday, 12 September 2017

A Conversation about Fairytales (1)



This is the first of two Youtube interviews at the Greystones Press, in which Mary Hoffman, my fellow-writer, publisher and friend, asks me some questions about fairy tales and my book Seven Miles of Steel Thistles which was published by Greystones last year (and longlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award 2016). I provide a rough transcript, below.


Mary: What was the first fairy tale you can remember? 

Katherine:  Probably Briar Rose, aka the Sleeping Beauty. I’d be about seven or eight and was sent to read the story of Briar Rose to the headmistress of my little school. Her office was quiet and filled with sunshine, and through the window I could see into a rose garden which only the teachers were allowed to use – so a secret garden filled with roses... I’ll never forget the still, special feeling of standing there reading aloud about the castle falling asleep and the roses twining up the walls.  

And to me it doesn’t matter that ‘all she does is sleep’. That story isn’t about people – not all stories have to be about people. For me, a child, I was entranced by the notion that time could stop. That’s what the story tells, it’s a distillation of a particular feeling, the feeling you can get as a child (or if you’re very lucky as an adult) when you’re so engrossed in the world that a sunny hour can last for ever. Time is a mystery, wreathed in thorns and roses. That’s what that story said to me. 



Mary:  Why do fairytales matter in the 21st century?

Katherine:  You might as well ask ‘what does the 21st century matter to fairytales?’ People have been telling and retelling fairytales for centuries, quite probably for millennia, and they certainly aren’t going away! In fact they show no sign of doing so. You’ve only got to look at what Hollywood is doing. In the last few years we’ve had Frozen, Tangled, Maleficent, Into the Woods, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Huntsman… and so on. Though I do wish the studios would move beyond that one quite tiny handful of popular tales…

There will always be people who don’t like them. But I think there are modern adults who don’t quite understand them. Fairy tales are a particular form, with their own rules. Like a sonnet. You don’t blame a sonnet for not being an epic. In the same way, a fairy tale is never going to be like a novel. You mustn’t expect ‘realistic’ characters who change and develop. Fairytale characters don’t change. Fairytale characters are more like archetypes. They often don’t even have names. They’ll be ‘the king’s daughter’, ‘the king’s son’, ‘the lad’, ‘the child’, ‘the maiden’. If they are named, the names will be really common ones, like Hans and Jack, Kate and Gretel. This is to keep them impersonal. They are everyman and everywoman: they are us.

Some might think, well how can I identify with a princess? In fact the bareness and simplicity of the form make it easy. ‘Princess’ is just a starting point for an adventure; and many of the heroes and heroines aren’t royal at all. They’re peasants and tradesmen, farmers and beggars and pensioned-off soldiers, and as I say in ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’:

‘If you think about it for a moment, the world is still full of peasants and tradesmen and farmers and beggars and pensioned-off soldiers. Just as it always was.’

Mary: Isn't there an argument that fairytales are rather sexist - that fairytale princesses are poor role models?

Katherine: Well, there’s a persistent misconception that fairy-tale heroines are passive. I remember hearing a discussion a couple of years ago on Radio 4 which dismissed the entire genre as projecting images of insipid princesses whose role is to lie asleep in towers waiting for princes to rescue them with ‘true love’s kiss’. 

I think this is because a lot of people who may not have read a fairy tale in years remember the small handful they came across as children, remember Snow-White in her glass coffin and Cinderella weeping in the ashes, and assume they stand for all.

In fact, women and girls in fairytales are often very active; the majority of heroines in the Grimms’ tales are the chief agents in their own stories. They rescue brothers and sweethearts, they save themselves or their fathers or their sisters. It’s partly that these stories aren’t nearly so well known (possibly reflecting early 20th century editorial choices) and partly that the stories themselves aren’t always well understood. 

In spite of the Disney song ‘One day my prince will come’, ‘Snow-White’ is not a love story. It’s a tale of a cruel queen, a lost child, a dark forest, a magic mirror. The arrival of the prince at the end is no more than a neat way to wrap the story up. 

If we approach fairy tales expecting nothing but sexist stereotypes, we will miss the irony, the inflections, we won’t get the jokes. 

In Grimms’ ‘The Twelve Huntsmen’, a princess dresses herself and eleven ladies-in-waiting as huntsmen and goes to work for her lover, a king who has promised his dying father to marry a different woman. This king has a talking lion. The lion suspects the twelve young huntsmen of being women. He sets several traps to get them to betray themselves – such as an array of twelve spinning wheels which he assures the king these ‘women’ will be unable to resist. Remember, this is a story which was once told aloud in mixed company, and that spinning was a woman’s repetitive, endless work. It’s as if, in a modern version, the lion had set out a line of twelve vacuum cleaners. Readers who take this at face value are missing the comedy of the princess’s satirical aside to her followers as they stride past: ‘Hold back, control yourselves, don’t give those spinning wheels a glance…’  This is a story which directs sly humour at male assumptions about female ability.  If we fail to notice when a story is inviting us to laugh, it’s we who are naïve. 


Mary: What drew you to write the blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, which led to the book of the same title?

Katherine: I started the blog in 2009 as a way of starting a dialogue with other writers and readers of fairy tales, folklore and fantasy – all of which which I’ve loved since childhood. The name of the blog and title of the book comes from an Irish fairytale ‘The King Who had Twelve Sons’ in which the hero rides his pony over ‘seven miles of hill on fire and seven miles of steel thistles and seven miles of sea.’  (I have much more to say about that story in the book!)

Creating the blog has been a great experience. I’ve made many friends through it, both in this country and in the US and Australia, many wonderful writers have been contributed posts on their favourite fairy tales. I’ve learned a great deal through it, and have also had opportunities that wouldn’t have come my way without it, invitations to speak at conferences, for example, and to contribute essays and reviews to a number of academic or semi academic publications. 

And then of course the Greystones Press suggested publishing the book!


Thursday, 17 August 2017

"Tales from India" - by Bali Rai


Wicked magicians, wise priests, handsome princes, beautiful princesses - along with greedy tigers and sly jackals. What's not to love? I'm delighted to welcome Bali Rai to the blog to talk about his new book of fairy tales and folk tales from India. Prepare for enchantment! 






This collection came about after a lunchtime conversation. It was one of those casual, almost throwaway moments. As a British-born child of Indian parents, my knowledge of Asian folk tales was shamefully limited. Of course I knew the famous ones, but they were just the beginning. My parents never had the privilege of hearing such stories at school, because they never went to school. As a result, they had no way of passing these tales on to their children.

            And in my British schools, the concept of Indian storytelling was almost non-existent. We were never taught about India’s rich folk tale heritage and ancient cultures (likewise China and Africa). Most of us didn’t realise that fairy tales and stories of talking animals existed in our parents’ traditions too. Folk tales, and stories generally, seemed to be a Western thing. It was as though we were being invited into a secret club, to which our ancestors had not previously belonged.

            So when a casual idea became a concrete project, I had to discover India’s rich folk tale heritage as a beginner. I found amazing and often magical tales, full of adventure and trickery, and infused with deeper messages about morality, Life and the world around us. From wicked magicians to wise old priests, charming princes and beautiful princesses – every aspect of the Western tales I’d heard in childhood were present here, too.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how similar these Indian tales were to those of the Western tradition. Of particular interest were the Indian tales compiled by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). These were published in 1912, and form the basis for much of this collection. Punchkin immediately reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and many of the animal tales would find a happy home in Aesop or Kipling.

Of course, there are many differences, too. The Indian tales feel darker in places, and perhaps more moralistic too. Neither do they make allowances for the sensitivity or age of readers. Whilst ostensibly a children’s story, in The Peacock and The Crane the penalty for pride and boastfulness is death rather than a lesson well-learnt. Ditto any modern concepts of political correctness. There are helpless and passive princesses, and wizened old crones aplenty, not to mention heroes who seem only to relish the acquisition of material wealth. However, this tallies with their western counterparts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical.

The rest of the collection comprises retellings of the Akbar and Birbal tales from India’s Mughal period, and other gems that I discovered in passing. Better known than most other Indian tales and widely read in the sub-continent, the Akbar and Birbal stories are wonderfully simple yet leave a lasting impression. Birbal is the patient and wise teacher and Akbar an often impetuous and boastful pupil. Their friendship is warm and full of charm and makes these tales a delight.

In reworking these stories, I will admit to plenty of creative licence. I wanted to make these stories accessible and readable for western audiences of all stripes. As such, many of the previously published versions needed polishing and editing. Joseph Jacob’s original versions were of particular concern and have seen the greatest changes, although the others have been re-imagined too. Keen to keep this collection secular, I have steered clear of religion where possible. I have also removed archaic and often offensive terms, as well as re-working the roles of women in one or two cases. 

Continuity and plotting were also an issue. For some of these tales, my starting point was just a few badly translated lines found online, or in obscure, often self-published books. For others, I had dense passages to work through, most of which lacked clarity. In one case, an entire section seemed to be missing. Where possible, I stuck to the original plot lines rigidly. For others, this was almost infeasible, and so I imagined and wrote new connecting scenes. All of this was done to enhance the reading experience and simplify often complicated language.

They aim of this project is to widen potential readership, and take these tales to an audience yet to benefit from reading them. Reworking folk tales can be a hazardous business, and often people become attached to their own versions of a particular tale. I meant no disrespect in modernising these tales. Think of them simply as remixes, intended to engage and enchant modern readers, and to lure them further into Indian folklore. 

'Tales from India' by Bali Rai is published by Puffin Classics




Bali Rai is the multi-award winning author of over 30 young adult, teen and children's books. His edgy, boundary-pushing writing style has made him extremely popular on the school visit circuit across the world and his books are widely taught. Passionate about promoting reading and literacy for young people, he is an ambassador for the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead project, was involved in the BBC’s Love To Read campaign, and also speaks about issues around diversity, representation, and in defence of multiculturalism. Regularly invited to speak on panels and at conferences, he is also patron of an arts charity and a literature festival. Bali is a politics graduate and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. His first novel, (Un)arranged Marriage was published in 2001, and his most recent YA novel, Web of Darkness, won three awards and received widespread acclaim. He is currently working on a new YA title, as well as two series for younger readers. His latest title, TheHarder They Fall, is available now.




Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Silver Cup from Dagberg Daas




Here is a version of an old tale I used in my first book, Troll Fell’. I love the practical but horrific way this 'berg-woman' deals with her long, drooping breasts. A berg-man or berg-woman is a mound dweller, elf or troll.


In Dagberg Daas there formerly lived a berg-man with his family.  It happened once that a man who came riding past there took it into his head to ask the berg-woman for a little to drink.  She went to get some for him, but her husband bade her take it out of the poisoned barrel.  The traveller heard all this, however, and when the berg-woman handed him the cup with the drink, he threw the contents over his shoulder and rode off with the cup in his hand, as fast as his horse could gallop. The berg-woman threw her breasts over her shoulders, and ran after him as hard as she could. (The man rode off over some ploughed land where she had difficulty in following him, as she had to keep to the line of the furrows.)  When he reached the spot where Karup Stream crosses the road from Viborg to Holtebro, she was so near him that she snapped a hook (hage) off the horse’s shoe, and therefore the place has been called Hagebro ever since.  She could not cross the running water, and so the man was saved. It was seen afterwards that some drops of the liquor had fallen on the horse’s loins and taken off both hide and hair.

 From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie, 1896

'Troll Fell' by David Wyatt


In my book 'Troll Fell' the children's father Ralf tells the tale to Gudrun his wife, and his three children:



"I was halfway over Troll Fell, tired and wet and weary, when I saw a bright light glowing from the top of the crag, and heard snatches of music gusting on the wind."

            “Curiosity killed the cat,” Gudrun muttered.

 “I turned the pony off the road and kicked him into a trot up the hillside. I was in one of our own fields, the high one called the Stonemeadow.  At the top of the slope I could hardly believe my eyes.  The whole rocky summit of the hill had been lifted up, like a great stone lid! It was resting on four stout red pillars. The space underneath was shining with golden light and there were scores, maybe hundreds of trolls, all shapes and sizes, skipping and dancing, and the noise they were making! Louder than a fair, what with bleating and baaing, mewing and catetwauling, horns wailing, drums pounding, and squeaking of one-string fiddles!”

“How could they lift the whole top of Troll Fell, Pa?” asked Sigurd.

“As easily as you take off the top of your egg,” joked Ralf. He sobered. “Who knows what powers they have, my son? I only tell what I saw, saw with my own eyes. They were feasting in the great space under the hill: all sorts of food on gold and silver dishes, and little troll servingmen jumping about between the dancers, balancing great loaded trays and never spilling a drop, clever as jugglers!  It made me laugh out loud.

            “But the pony shied.  I'd been so busy staring, I hadn't noticed this troll girl creeping up on me till she popped up right by the pony's shoulder.  She held out a beautiful golden cup filled to the brim with something steaming hot - spiced ale I thought it was, and I took it gratefully from her, cold and wet as I was!”

            “Madness!” muttered Gudrun.

            Ralf looked at the children. “Just before I gulped it down,” he said slowly, “I noticed the look on her face.  There was a gleam in her slanting eyes, a wicked sparkle!  And her ears, her hairy, pointed ears, twitched forward. I saw she was up to no good!”

“Go on!” said the children breathlessly.

Ralf leaned forwards. “So, I lifted the cup, pretending to sip.  Then I jerked the whole drink out over my shoulder.  It splashed out smoking, some on to the ground and some on to the pony's tail, where it singed off half his hair!  There's an awful yell from the troll girl, and the next thing the pony and I are off down the hill, galloping for our lives.  I've still got the golden cup on one hand – and half the trolls of Troll Fell are tearing after us!”

Soot showered into the fire.  Alf, the old sheepdog, pricked his ears. Up on the roof the troll lay flat with one large ear unfurled over the smoke-hole. Its tail lashed about like a cat’s and it was growling. But none of the humans noticed. They were too wrapped up in the story. Ralf wiped his face, his hand trembling with remembered excitement, and laughed.

“I daren’t go home,” he continued. “The trolls would have torn your mother and Hilde to pieces. I had one chance.  At the tall stone called the Finger, I turned off the road on to the big ploughed field above the mill.  The pony could go quicker over the soft ground, you see, but the trolls found it heavy going across the furrows. I got to the mill stream ahead off them, jumped off and dragged the pony through the water.  I was safe!  The trolls couldn't follow me over the brook.  They were spitting like cats and hissing like kettles.  They threw stones and clods at me, but it was nearly dawn and off they scuttled back up the hillside.  And I heard – no, I felt, through the soles of my feet, a sort of far-off grating shudder as the top of Troll Fell sank into its place again...”



Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish, HarperCollins: all three books of the Troll Trilogy are currently available in an omnibus edition entitled 'West of the Moon'




Picture credits: 'Troll Fell', unpublished illustrations by David Wyatt in author's possession: copyright David Wyatt 2004