Tuesday, 29 January 2013

When Fantasy Left the Forest

When fantasy left the forest...so did we.

'Inviting forest' by perodog @ dA
Looking at the connection between nature and happiness, and the books that get us outside...

One of the most poignant discussions for me in Gossip from the Forest was about the amount of time children are spending outdoors:
We are doing something very alarming to our children - and, making it worse perhaps, we have fooled ourselves that we are doing it for their sake, for their safety. The amount of unsupervised time outside the home that young people get to enjoy is being reduced year on year (the average child has lost a whole hour a day already this century). (1)
In 2007 Unicef published a report that stated children in the UK are the unhappiest of all the economically developed countries. Despite children themselves stating that 'having plenty to do outdoors' would make them happy, their parents felt under pressure to buy them the latest gadgets and gizmos instead (read The Guardian article on this here). The lack of connection to nature, or 'Nature Deficit Disorder', has made our country miserable. This worried David Bond so much that he set up Project Wild Thing and gave himself the title of Nature's Marketing Director, thinking that Nature needed a helping hand in getting children back outside. He created the Wild Time App, featuring a wide range of nature based activities that can be done in the time you have available, whether it's 10 minutes or 2 hours. The National Trust has also provided a list of 50 things to do before you're 11 3/4.

'Exploration' by perodog @ dA
There are numerous reasons for this deficit, but Maitland identifies a key factor: the books children read these days aren't relevant to the natural world around them.
Interestingly, we have also abandoned another genre of literature, one which encouraged children to see themselves as capable on their own in the wild. There is a sort of novel for younger readers that was immensely popular up until the last quarter of the twentieth century and that has now well-nigh disappeared: stories of adventures in which children are on their own and deal with problems under a veneer of realism; novels like Swallows and Amazons or The Famous Five... (2)
Looking at the shelves in bookshops I would not have imagined this myself; Enid Blyton seems to be a pretty permanent fixture at least. In 2010 The Famous Five publisher tried to boost sales of the series by modernising the language, although they claimed their sales weren't suffering before they took this action. Perhaps this is the problem, then: relevance to the modern world. Maybe the child is too harsh a critic to really believe it possible that parents would let their children go off alone on camping trips like Julian, Dick, George and Anne do. Suspending disbelief to make this seem credible would then make the book a fantasy tale rather than an adventure story...would it not?
We have kept the magical element of fairy stories in modern books for young people; fantasy worlds are now the location of adventures and moral combat. But we have abandoned the immensely reassuring realist element of these old tales: the forests are dangerous but you can survive; use your own intelligence and courage and you will come back safely. (3)
The wonderful thing that fairy stories create is this idea in the back of the mind that when you walk through a forest, something magical might happen to you. There are few other stories I can recall from my childhood that give me this sensation when I walk in the woods, or indeed in any other natural place.

So, do we need to bring the magic back home? Is this the challenge of the modern writer, who cares about magic, who cares about nature, and who cares about the wellbeing of children? A quick browse of the list of current children's bestsellers and upcoming releases tells me that most of the stories are fantasies or mysteries set in the city (often with supernatural creatures prowling the streets at night). I'm not surprised. Ten years ago when I was a teen, finding a new book set in the countryside felt like a rarity even then. Maybe this can be my challenge as a writer. And a challenge as a reader, to find these rare jewels - any suggestions would be most welcome, please share them with me in the comments!

'A tree of a salamander2' by perodog @ dA
Related posts:
Woods between Worlds

(1) Maitland, Sara, Gossip from the Forest, (London: Granta, 2012), 98.
(2) Ibid., 104.
(3) Ibid., 105.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Fairy tale symposium @ SCFFF

Old, New, Borrowed and Blue: A Fairy Tale Symposium
Tuesday 26th March, Bishop Otter campus, University of Chichester
Speakers: Jacqueline Simpson, Nicholas Tucker and Jack Zipes
A chance to see Jack Zipes give a lecture? Yes please! I am so thankful that I live close to the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy right now...not that I'm ever not thankful, of course. It seems that the event is free, so if this is only going to cost me a train ticket then I have no excuse for missing this!

Also, thanks to the SCFFF we can all read a new article about the Grimms by Jack Zipes here.

I am so full of fairy tale love right now <3 p="">

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

How much does happily-ever-after cost?

How many fairy tales do you encounter on a day to day basis? One? Two? Over a hundred, perhaps? In recent years I have noticed fairy tale imagery has had a massive resurgence in TV advertising, and as it has been suggested that we are subjected to hundreds - if not thousands - of adverts every day, our subconscious is probably inundated with happily-ever-afters off all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. 

It is unsurprising that companies use fairy tales as part of their marketing campaigns, as they create a sense of whimsical desire and romantic idealism. In the UK, I have noticed the appearance of fairy tales most in association with household cleaning products. Women are still the main targets of these adverts, as the assumption is that they do the majority of the housework. Cinderella, anyone? Cinderella slaved away for a long time, but eventually met her prince and found happiness. Regular women don't have such high expectations, but if the brand can make a woman relate to Cinderella somehow, she will associate their product with an easier life, a more accessible happily ever after.
See for example Cif and Vanish (which takes a slightly different approach, and shows the male cleaner as the woman's hero).

Cinderella is also famous for travelling to her ball in a pumpkin...but Go Compare picked up on the fact that the fairy godmother forgot to insure it!
'Change' is a recurring theme in fairy tales: there are rags to riches transformations, changes of affections, changes of states (eternal sleep to life, frog to prince...) We all want positive changes in our lives, so, how about faster broadband from Sky?

Pretty much anything can have a fairy tale angle found for it, whether its foodadventures far, far away, or just wanting to feel a bit more like a princess

And TV will always be suited to fairy tales: it is an easy form of escapism and entertainment, which are the main reasons we first come into contact with these stories, as children. TV viewers agree to suspend their belief in reality and presumably can remember being a child, a period in life when inhabiting alternate realities was far more common. With nostalgia thrown into the mix as well, the marketing teams are laughing.

Myth and magic continue to be a part of our daily lives, even if they don't appear in the most expected ways. It could be argued that fairy tales in adverts are just another fad, responding to the many new films, books and television shows, or going for the optimistic outlook in times of global financial hardship. It could be any number of reasons, yet at the same time, there is only one reason: be it in a big way or small, fairy tales will always be a part of our lives, and until we give up the quest for love, for riches, for happiness, or the fight for good to triumph over evil, chances are, they always will be. We just have to get used to seeing them in odd places...

Friday, 18 January 2013

buried treasure

Andersen's Fairy Tales...
Found in a charity shop. It cost me just 75p.
This edition is from 1928/1930 and contains illustrations by Rene Bull.

It has that beautiful old book smell and parchment-y pages that beg to be turned. This may sound sentimental, but that's because I also own the complete works of Andersen in one humungous book that tries to look old fashioned and magical but can't do it, because it isn't. Sure, I love that I have all the stories, but for me the best sort of book is one with a history.
And this book must have a history (some context: it has seen world war, cold war, four monarchs, and sixteen prime ministers) How many people have owned and loved this book? I wonder...

What gems have you discovered in charity shops?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Woods between Worlds

This is the first post in what I hope to be a series of short articles relating to forests and fairy tales, inspired by Sara Maitland's writing in Gossip from the Forest. In this post I look at the links between the 'casual magic' of the forests and their setting as a place of transition for characters in and beyond fairy tales.


Woods between Worlds: Magic and Transition in the Fairy Tale Forest

There is magic between the pages of fairy stories. We can't always see it, but it's there. This magic will often be found and felt amongst knotted trunks and snaking branches, between the barriers formed by tangled undergrowth and a dense, leafy canopy. It will be practised by plants, animals and people (mostly old people) but never, on any account, will it be sought for or used by you.

'Magic is something you are given, something that is done to you or around you,' Maitland explains in Gossip from the Forest (1). Have you ever set foot within the boundaries of a forest and felt a change in atmosphere? You cannot walk into a forest and look for magic, but the knowledge that there is magic there, and that it might cross your path, definitely gives the forest an atmosphere unlike any other natural place, heightened by the fact that you are on alert for its sudden, random appearance. It could happen to anyone, any time:
I know of no other cultural tradition that treats magic in this odd casual way. I believe it is a distinct forest magic that grew out of the experience of living in woods, where you cannot see far ahead and where things change abruptly. (2)
This casual magic does seem to have one rule, however:
The magic comes to them, without solicitation or endeavour. It is usually in the form of assistance, not solution: they have to use the magical gifts they are given, and they have to continue to work or suffer or both. (3)
If magic was the goal, the forest would be the destination. But magic finds you in the forest: you enter seeking your fortune, escaping abuse, looking to prove yourself, and you leave armed with the power to achieve your goal. The casual magic of the forest is linked to the transition of the character's ability or status, an emotional or physical turning point in their journey; and this role of the forest is one that has lingered in literature, beyond the realms of traditional fairy stories.
In C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe and find themselves in the woods. It contains magical creatures (here we meet the faun, Mr Tumnus) but also a familiar item from their own world: the lamp post. The imagery provided by this infiltration from their world highlights the transitional nature of the woods. When Lucy and Edmund spend time alone in Narnia they do not wander far, but Lucy's time alone in particular empowers her and provides her with enough understanding of the creatures and rules of the land to motivate the others to keep travelling onward on their quest.

Lewis also created 'the wood between the worlds' in The Magicians's Nephew. It is, as its name suggests, the place Diggory and Polly appear when they leave their own world, containing the access points to other worlds. It has a peculiar effect on the children, who find it hard to hold on to memories of who they are and where they are from. Diggory claims, 'It's not the sort of place where things happen. The trees go on growing, that's all.' (4) This, I believe, is a common misconception of forests in our post-industrial world. I could take a guess and say that Lewis was commenting on the way we use our forests now, no longer for our livelihoods but for occasional days out...but, really, in the context of the book nothing needs to happen there: it is just a transitional place containing magical portals to access other worlds.
Tolkien's Middle-Earth universe does not see characters travel between worlds, but immerses the reader in an alternate universe that still uses the forest as a magical, transitional space. Immediately upon leaving the Shire, as they flee the black riders, the four hobbits find themselves in the Old Forest, marking the end of normality and familiarity and the start of one of the most epic adventures in literature. Hobbits believe the Old Forest to contain trees that are 'awake', and later on Merry and Pippin come into contact with the Ents (tree-herders) when they find themselves in Fangorn Forest. This, again, marks a change in status for the two hobbits, from danger to safety, and from an old mission to a new one.

I could go on (5). There are forests in all types of literature, for all ages, all showing the impact the fairy tale forest has had on them. This is also abundantly clear in Disney films, even though they have moved away from the traditional stories. In
 'The Princess and The Frog,' (6) Tiana and Naveen find themselves in a foresty bayou where they must face up to their personality flaws and learn to co-operate (as well as find a good witch); and Carl and Russell from 'Up' make an early stop in their balloon adventure in the jungle, where they better learn how to get along and meet other magical members of their group. 

One of the points Maitland wanted to make in her book was that forests and fairy tales grow and evolve together. Our world has changed dramatically over the years, and even though we are not getting out into these legendary places of mischief and magic like we used to, and even though there are factions trying to tell us fairy tales are bad, the legacy of fairy tales and forests continues to inform our lives, whether it is through films, books, music, or even just a vague feeling that causes a shiver down our spines when we walk through the trees. I think the clue is in the first line of every story: once upon a time. Once upon a time there were fairy stories and forests. There were, there are, and there will always be movement, change and magic in the world.

Related Posts:
When Fantasy Left the Forest
Exploring the Forest

(1) Maitland, Sara, Gossip from the Forest, (London: Granta, 2012), 157.
(2) Maitland, 158.
(3) Maitland, 157-8.
(4) Quotes sourced from ePubBud as I don't have my copy of the book to hand. Unfortunately this means a lack of page numbers, but the quoted text is from chapter 3.
(5) I considered all the transitional and magical elements of Harry Potter's various trips into the Forbidden Forest each year, but something about it wasn't quite right...I then realised it was because there was a broken rule: Harry Potter had his own magic, and sought magical knowledge. Despite the forest being used for various transitional purposes, the magic was not casual.
(6) Although you could try and draw a parallel between the classic fairy tale, I find the Disney film to bear very little resemblance. However, Tiana's violent dislike for Naveen does recall my preferred ending to the story, where the frog is turned into a prince through being hurled against a wall by the princess, rather than from a kiss. 

Friday, 11 January 2013

Exploring the Forest

For Christmas this year I received a truly inspirational present: Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland. Although I was lucky enough to be given several books, this is the one I couldn't resist delving into first, and I was instantly hooked. I am now halfway through and loving every page!

Source: Waterstones
Each chapter is devoted to a specific forest Maitland is exploring, and her writing seems to effortlessly mimic a chain of thought that links types of trees, the forestry-oriented history of the country, and of course the relationship with fairy tales. The chapters on the woods are interspersed with interesting re-tellings of fairy tales that draw their magic from this landscape: one that stands out for me is her version of Hansel and Gretel, which deviates completely from the familiar tale and instead examines their lives as adults, coping with what went on in the darkest depths of the trees...

The most wonderful discovery so far is a chapter entirely devoted to the very part of London I grew up in - turns out my neighbourhood, West Norwood, gets its name from a contraction of 'North Wood', which covered a vast expanse of what is now south London. Reading about the history of a place I know so intimately has caused a stir inside me: I literally grew up on the long lost roots of ancient woodland! Whenever I go into green spaces, especially woods, I feel so alive and free in a way that is hard to express, but which I want to channel in order to create some interesting writing for THCV...

So, inspired by Maitland and my own woodland adventures, I have decided to dedicate a series of posts to exploring the forest and our links to them in fairy tales and books in general. I want to pick up on some ideas Maitland posits, look at specific books that capture the magic of the forests, and hopefully go on my own version of a forest adventure...

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A.S. Byatt and That Fairy Tale Feeling

After promising to provide more exploratory posts this year, I am kicking off 2013 with something I have been working on for a while, trying to find the best words and phrases to translate my vague feelings into something tangible...

Please let me know your thoughts! Not just on the content, I'd also like to hear your opinions on the length as this piece is over 1000 words. Does this work on a blog?

A.S. Byatt and That Fairy Tale Feeling

I have been puzzling over 'that fairy tale feeling', the one that takes hold of me whenever I read the fairy tales I grew up with, instantly transforming me into a child again. After puzzling away for a good long time, I started to wonder whether 'that fairy tale feeling' is a certain lack of emotion, or sense of detachment.

These terms may sound quite negative, or like an accusation, but I am referring to writing style rather than substance. I think it exists subtly within most stories, although I would say it is most recognisable in the Grimm's collections, as they are based on the oral tradition. This detachment allows the stories to exist as  just something that happened, once upon a time. 

Detachment in fairy tales

I came across A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book as I began writing this, and was delighted to find Byatt had put across her ideas about fairy tales through her characters, who were also struggling to articulate 'that' feeling:
Griselda said that her aunt's fairy stories frightened her. So did Hans Andersen, he made her cry. But not this sort of tale. She didn't know why. It should be scary, there was a lot of blood. Toby said these were memories of some other time, long ago, and he agreed, they weren't scary. 
"They are just like that," said Griselda, feeling for what intrigued her, not finding it. [pp 51-2]
They are what they are, just something that happened, once upon a time. In this quote, Griselda has seen the Brothers Grimm version of 'Cinderella' acted by marionettes, and recognises it, yet doesn't recognise it, as she is used to the version by Charles Perrault, 'whose stories were written for young ladies, and usually had fairy godmothers.'

When fairy tales are 'designed', regardless of who they are designed for, that sense of detachment is in danger of becoming lost due to the intent within the words, the desire to steer emotions and beliefs towards a particular way of thinking. The Grimms may have had an audience in mind, albeit different to Perrault's, but their 'detachment' allowed Griselda to see the story through her own eyes rather than through theirs, and saved her the pain of emotional blackmail that she feels from reading Andersen.

image sourced here
Later, Griselda goes on to study fairy tales at Cambridge; she wants to know why they aren't just myths, how the versions of tales are the same and also different, and what the rules are that they follow. She discusses her decision to do this with her friend Julian:
"That's another thing I want to study. I don't think the real tales do frighten you. I think you accept the rules. They work in a fenced world which isn't the real world, where nothing ever really changes. Witches get punished, and goose-girls become princesses, and what was lost is restored." 
"I don't know. I was particularly horrified as a small brat by the eyeballs stuck on the thorns, or the dead men impaled on a fence round the glass hill, or the witch in the barrel full of nails." 
"I would suggest it was a kind of gleeful horror? Whereas H.C. Andersen's stories do hurt the reader. The Little Mermaid walking on knives and losing her tongue." [p488]
Byatt, A.S., The Children's Book. London: Chatto & Windus, 2009.

Griselda's opinions on Andersen seem to mirror Byatt's own. In an article for The Guardian newspaper, she says:
From very early I had an unthinking category in my mind of the "real"(authentic) fairy tale which centred on the brothers Grimm, and some of the Nordic stories collected by Asbjørnsen. It included some of Perrault and some English tales - "Jack and the Beanstalk", for instance. These tales might be funny or horrible or weird or abrupt, but were never disturbing, they never twisted your spirit with sick terror as Andersen so easily did. They had a discrete, salutary flatness. [italics my own]
So Byatt/Griselda states that the 'detachment' is due to an understanding that the story takes place in a world with generally accepted rules. Byatt has named what I call 'lack of feeling' as 'flatness'. She also says, 'Character feels wrong in folktales' after explaining that it would be impossible to actually fall in love with Little Red Riding Hood because she has a series of boxed in, finite gestures. She talks about the link between the 'impersonal oral and the 'authored' story with psychology,' and explains how the Grimms tip the balance more towards oral, and Andersen towards psychological, which is why his stories are more damaging. 

We know that the Grimms, who first published Kinder-und Haus-Märchen in 1812, went back and re-wrote their stories in later years to imbue them with more family-friendly, middle-class values. However, because they remain more true to the oral tradition, their stories retain that sense of 'detachment' that is lost in a more authored story.

1857 cover. Source.

Detachment in the modern world

This 'detachment' is relevant beyond my attempt to understand a vague feeling that came over me as a child: it is relevant to those people in contemporary life who are part of current debates, and those who continue writing in the fairy tale tradition.

It has been much reported in the news recently how parents are up in arms about the 'damaging' effects that fairy tales are supposed to have on children, because they are full of cruelty, murder and violent justice. I can see where they are coming from, but I don't believe their claims take the bigger picture into consideration. 

It seems to me that fairy tales with this 'flatness' or 'detachment' allow a child to understand that what transpires is just something that happened, once upon a time. They may not guide a child to take sides with the good guys, but then again these tales aren't always in black and white. They're not Aesop's Fables with a clear moral at the end; their original purpose was entertainment, but equally, that doesn't mean there aren't one or two lessons to pick up along the way. 'Fairy tales' has been used as an umbrella heading in this attack that doesn't take into consideration the wide variety of stories out there.  

The 'Shrek' movies gave new personalities to popular princesses.
Image sourced here
'Detachment' also allows new authors of fairy tales and fairy tale inspired work to re-examine the stories. Writing in the 'authored' style we fill in the gaps that weren't considered gaps when we heard these stories as children, and ask questions that don't need to be answered to keep the original tale credible. We extend them, look at them from different angles and get under characters' skins in a way that perhaps wouldn't be so possible if these stories were completely authored or 'attached' in the first place.

And why do we writers and readers continue to delve into these worlds, which are 'flat', 'boxed in' and where 'character feels wrong'? I think the true magic of this detachment is that it has allowed us all, no matter our age, to be permanently enchanted by events that just happened, once upon a time.