Monday, 26 October 2015

Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale Course

It has already been widely circulated in the fairy tale blogworld that Future Learn are running a free academic course on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, facilitated by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark.

There's still time to sign up to the six week course; I'm playing catch up at the moment and all the indications I've had so far suggest to me it will be very interesting! There are some longer writing assignments to complete, and I will probably post them and my responses to discussion stimuli here.

If you join me, I look forward to a good old chinwag and a debate or two!

HCA reading to children. By Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann. Source.

Friday, 9 October 2015

As We Approach 30: The Potter Generation

When my dad first arrived in England, the question he was asked by all of his peers was 'Beatles or Stones?' The question that defined my generation, that formed humorous playground allegiances, was 'Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Slytherin?'

It feels like a lifetime ago, but the Harry Potter world is still going strong with two plays and a film upcoming, and never-ending legions of new fans. And sandwiched in amongst the new young fans, the die hard superfans, and those who generally aren't too fussed but still aware, lie us: The Generation. Some of us of course fit into the above categories, but most of us just are, going through life, but having spent our formative years surrounded by the magic of Hogwarts. This isn't a claim on a title or an assertion of some sort of privilege. It just is.


These thoughts have been composting in my mind since a couple of weeks ago, when I happened to notice the Internet had started crying hysterically because J.K. Rowling's previously-interactive site Pottermore had changed format. Curious, I clicked through a few links to see what the fuss was about. There were a lot of reactions that were angry, to put it mildly, but in a way that felt intensely personal ('I'm not in my House anymore! I've lost my username! How could she do this to us?!') with the incensed voice of...well, the more 'rabid' of the fan species.* So I visited Pottermore and saw that, yes, these people were right and I was no longer a Ravenclaw.

But one of the first things I found on the site instead was The Pottermore Correspondent's experience of the September Screenings at the studio tour, and it felt like I'd stumbled into the eye at the centre of the hurricane. Here she was with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, 'The Potter Generation', not hurling abuse at a computer screen, just enjoying some lighthearted-deep-and-meaningful (yes I'm aware of what I'm writing) movie magic. It got me thinking: as we've gotten older, how has Harry Potter really influenced our lives?

by helina01 at devaintART

There is some disagreement about who classifies as 'The Generation', but generally, if you were growing up with the books and waiting impatiently for the next one to be released - you're it. It wasn't something we could devour in one mass read-a-thon and then obsess maniacally over. Sure, we were perfectly capable of becoming obsessed, but the stories didn't catapult into our lives all at once so our fascination was future-oriented, endlessly speculating over what would follow rather than on all that had come before (though that naturally formed part of it). The books exploded in one by one then seeped into our bones, a single firework bang with the sparks raining down afterwards.

I was seven when I read the first book, and I was hooked immediately. The second book had already been released at that point, but after that I was playing the waiting game along with everyone else. I was a few years behind the action taking place in the series, but 'reading up' is the norm for children, and I was most definitely looking up to the books; seeing the bravery, intelligence and love develop felt like something worth aspiring to, and (laugh/gag if you will) made me feel hopeful about the future.

Thank you to the (real life) adults who joined us on our magical journey. Picture by CorinneRoberts at dA

Youth was a necessary prerequisite for membership in The Generation, but the adults were walking with us, just off the path. They knew how important the books were for us - these adults that were divided by Beatles and Stones or whatever the dividing lines were in the subsequent decades. My mum would always pre-order a copy of the latest book for the day it was released, then spend the entire day watching the clock as my brother and I took turns reading. It was understood and accepted by my parents that I would set my alarm for 3 a.m. to finish the book before school the next day; and there, teachers overlooked the students who slumped in their seats and could barely keep their eyes open. I was forgiven for not doing any violin practise the week the sixth book was released; in fact I didn't even open my case during the lesson, and spent 30 minutes arguing with my teacher over Snape's motives and what it could possibly mean for the final instalment. Fast forward a few years and during one particular enthusiastic discussion on critical literary theory at university, the professor didn't even raise an eyebrow when we started comparing Harry Potter to Aristotle. Talking about it in this setting felt as natural as breathing.

I'm sure higher education would have been even more inspiring in a castle. Hogwarts drawing by matsuo1326 at dA

So what else has become of us as we moved into adulthood? One interesting study into media consumption and politics suggested that, "Reading the [Harry Potter] books correlated with higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and grater [sic.] opposition to the use of violence and torture." All of these are very recognisable themes throughout the series. We are also the generation that grew up alongside the Internet and social media, with access to knowledge and news about current global political turbulence and suffering instantaneously, so to have such values instilled as we came to see all this was and is incredibly important. So, keep reading. 

Image Source
Unless you are one of the mega fans, approaching 30 it is unlikely Harry Potter still consciously features in your life much. But perhaps, occasionally, there's a piece of news from the Wizarding World that catches your eye. You smile fondly, maybe feel a tiny knot of excitement in your chest that recalls the feeling you had when you held the latest book in your hand for the first time - recalls, but could never replace.

"The stories we love best do live in us forever." said Rowling at the final premiere, and I whole heartedly agree. I carry with me so many words, places and characters that have all meant something to me and give me feelings of joy, pleasure and comfort. As I approach 30 I still dream of ginger beer on my hikes, wonder about wolves in the woods, and reach through to the backs of wardrobes, just to check. But this is the literary world I grew up with, so, for example, I wasn't too surprised when I was eating a pear a few months ago, and suddenly remembered that you can tickle a pear in a portrait of a fruit bowl to gain entry to the Hogwart's kitchens. 'Oh yeah,' I thought, and got back to whatever I was doing.

"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." said Albus Dumbledore in Philosopher's Stone. This is what we had to learn as Harry Potter weaved in and out of our childhood and teen years.** But I also think Dumbledore got it very right in the final book:

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"
by xXcherushiiXx at dA

End note: if this has brought up any traumatic memories from the past, Pottermore has very helpfully published 'How to deal with life when you've just finished reading Harry Potter' that may help you to work things through.


*I've not got anything against superfans. We've all been one at some point, for something. And a lot of the time superfandom is a representation of a deep emotional attachment to something important to you: that's not a bad thing. This comment is merely an observation of the seemingly more shallow side of things, which I judged based on CAPSLOCK and !!!!!!!! use.

**It occurs to me that this is the choice of inspirational quote that I put on my 'about' page. Ha! Well that just goes to show...

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Song of the Sea: Silence, Suffering, and Sibling Bonds

Note: I began writing about the voices of Saoirse and Ben before my computer crashed and died, and I only discovered recently that I hadn't lost all my work (hurray!) However, the film is no longer fresh in my mind and my train of thought has very much been broken, so I apologise if my thoughts do not seem so fully formed. Also, this will contain spoilers.


There is a lot of buzz about Song of the Sea at the moment, and rightly so: it is rich in folklore, deeply emotional and visually stunning - not that you would expect anything less from the creators of The Secret of Kells.

I will straight up admit that I am somewhat biased with my adoration of this film, because selkie tales in any form fascinate me. But Song of the just 'got me' in that way that art grabs you sometimes. Certainly this was partly down to the distinctive artistic style, transporting us through the tale in a gentler way than the bright and flashy 3D animation we are used to these days. That haunting melody also completely captivated me. It gave me shivers.

But the film lingered with me, and made me think a lot more than most films about what it could be saying, and the wider issues it brought up for me.

One thing I was particularly interested in was the significance of Saoirse being unable to speak. Her silence is integral as a plot device because it gives Ben's human voice more importance in the world of faerie, but I'm curious about what it means symbolically too. The two relevant tales that spring to mind are Six Swans or Twelve Brothers, where a sister must not utter a word while she sews shirts made of nettle leaves in order to restore her brothers to human form; and of course The Little Mermaid, who trades her voice for legs in order to be with the man she has fallen in love with.

Both the sister in Six Swans and Andersen's Little Sea Maid are also in a state of constant pain along with their silence, the sister from handling nettle leaves and the sea maid from walking as if on knives. Although Saoirse is sick later on in the film, that particular physical suffering isn't part of the condition with the silence - I believe her pain is internal, from not knowing who she is or how to belong. She is a young girl who doesn't understand why she is different (a mythical struggle) or why her brother resents her and her father sends her away ('mundane', family struggle). Like the heroines in the other tales it is great love that spurs her on in her silent pain to overcome these challenges, and it isn't until the end when she reconciles with her mother and is able to make a decision of her own to remain with her father and brother that she begins to speak more freely.

Saoirse's freedom of choice is the big thing that differentiates her from the other two heroines, who both freely enter into magical contracts that require transitioning into their silence and pain from previous states where they enjoyed the reverse. Although these contracts have been interpreted in completely contrasting ways as signs of strength of will or symbols of female subservience, I think the lack of this initial reversal means we can overlook both of these in Saoirse's case if we choose: we can view it as growth, as a coming into the true self, and moving from a state of ignorance to knowledge of oneself and one's position in the world/family. 

Ben's voice is mistaken for the selkie's

Saoirse's silence allows the siblings to embark on the adventure together on a more even ground: she is a mythical creature who cannot speak and doesn't know the songs and stories she is expected to know, while Ben is a mundane creature with the faerie knowledge his sister requires. They are yin and yang, opposites that combine in a perfect whole.

His knowledge is also what keeps him safe. Selkie mother notwithstanding, Ben is a human child and would not under normal circumstances have such 'safe' access to the world of faerie, because, as well we know, fairies are dangerous and fickle creatures and an encounter with them can be deadly.

Anybody with a brother will have this family photo!

The human story of family ties and tragedy intertwines beautifully with the traditional folkloric elements, and you don't need to be an expert in Irish folklore to understand that. Selkie and water spirit tales often involve tragedy and heartbreak, and looking at Ben, I wonder if selkies are able to better connect on an emotional level rather than a purely imaginative level with children today in comparison to your classic wolves, witches and fairies. 

Ben's voice seems to be the voice of folklore in modern times, recalling the stories nostalgically at the same time as they breathe life into a new story, and a new moment of existence. His voice speaks for Saoirse, for the memory of his mother, but it is also our voice and the subtle reminder that we are constantly in dialogue with these tales, weaving them into our modern existence one way or another.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Marina Warner speaks at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Today I had the great privilege of hearing Marina Warner give an inspiring and engaging talk on The Fairy Way of Writing as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The event was sold out, and a diverse queue of people had already snaked around half of Charlotte's Square, home of the festival, when I arrived. Conversation in the queue was excited, lively and intelligent, and at the end of the talk audience members asked very insightful questions; I don't think I've ever been in a room full of so many people passionate about fairy tales. What a buzz!

crowds gather in Charlotte's Square at the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square. Image source: Edinburgh International Book Festival
After a glowing introduction, Warner began by talking about the 'territory of enchantment' and the language of imagination. She highlighted the importance of children in the transmission of stories, as historically they would have been the ones to more easily pick up new languages and introduce their stories to the new places they arrived in. The transmission of fairy tales can be mapped like trade routes in this way. And yet, despite this, it is impossible to know how and where they started.

She played us a beautiful ballad by Emily Portman, 'Two Sisters' (The Glamoury, 2010) based on the story of the singing bone. This was used to show that the story itself is not only a fairy tale, but the singing bone (in the form of a harp) is transmitting its own fairy tale, sharing its learned experience to a new audience. The act of the tale within the tale itself.

Warner took us on a whirlwind journey through time to link the tales to the tellers and the situation of the telling, from the 15th century, through the familiar names of d'Aulnoy, Perrault, Grimm (and most pertinently to her audience today, Lang) right up to the present day where we have women at the helm in Disney's animation studios. Particular note was given to Jennifer Lee, screenwriter and co-director of Frozen.

girls react positively to female empowerment messages in Frozen
image source: incredible gifts

Some good points were made about Frozen; it is the highest grossing Disney film of all time, and girls have reacted positively to the messages of female solidarity. I do wonder why, then, we're still seeing the girls dress up and idolise Elsa rather than Anna (the rescuee rather than the rescuer) ...but then my less sceptical side reminds me that Elsa has magic powers, and that must be pretty awesome and factor into the equation somewhat!

One thing I never would have expected was an interpretation of Frozen as a commentary on our state of mind in the digital age. Elsa is stuck in the idea of her own image, and that limits her abilities socially (like the obsession with how we come across on social media platforms such as Facebook) until with a little bit of passion and dynamism she is able to live life fully in the moment (not worrying about how it will later look uploaded!) and she thaws and is able to enjoy herself more because of it.

platform 9 3/4 is the gateway to the territory of enchantment and wonderment in the universe of Harry Potter
image source: collider
I was also pleased to hear her critique Richard Dawkins and his comments last year, when he berated parents for reading fairy tales to children. You can read her full counter attack on The Observer website. Without going into that argument (we've all done it already), Warner reiterated her counter argument on behalf of team fairy tale perfectly: we don't all go and queue up in King's Cross Station because we believe that if we push that luggage cart handle we'll be transported to Platform 9 3/4; we do it because we believe it will be fun to pretend.

And it is that belief that makes us come back time and time again to the territory of enchantment and wonderment. We may not know how it started, but I'm pretty sure it will never end.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Tale of Tales: the latest fairy tale film offering

Tale of Tales is being lauded as the star of Cannes, according to The Guardian, and on the spectrum of fairy tale adaptations it falls easily on to the side of dark and creepy. 

This is not a retelling of a popular tale or an angsty examination of a misunderstood villain; instead it is a collection of stories based on the seventeenth century writings of Giambattista Basile, who predates more familliar household names such as Grimm, Andersen or Perrault.

The full review in The Guardian can be read here. It sounds like the sort of off-beat comedy that will perfectly complement the ridiculous and macabre storylines that are often seen in fairy tales, but mostly ignored in popular culture. I wonder if it marks the start of a new direction for film adaptations?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Growing Wonder

I am delighted to see that Unsettling Wonder are publishing all three issues of Volume 1 together. This incorporates 'Wonder Voyages', 'Wise Fools' and 'Fairy Brides', which contains my short story, The Grey Queen's Gown. Each issue contains an enchanting collection of fiction, essays and art and is a captivating read for anybody keen on exploring the magical worlds of folklore and fairy tales. 

It will also whet your appetite for the forthcoming issues in Volume 2: 'Why Would Anyone Enchant That?' and 'Changelings'.  

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange

I'm wondering if anybody has read this book before? I came across it in an esoteric bookshop, and seeing it described as 'lost' stories that never made it into the Arabian Nights reminded me of the lost German fairytales discovered the other year. Are these stories really all surfacing at the same time...?

"On the shrouded corpse hung a tablet of green topaz with the inscription: 'I am Shaddad the Great. I conquered a thousand cities; a thousand white elephants were collected for me; I lived for a thousand years and my kingdom covered both east and west, but when death came to me nothing of all that I had gathered was of any avail. You who see me take heed: for Time is not to be trusted.'
Dating from at least a millennium ago, these are the earliest known Arabic short stories, surviving in a single, ragged manuscript in a library in Istanbul. Some found their way into The Arabian Nights but most have never been read in English before.Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange has monsters, lost princes, jewels beyond price, a princess turned into a gazelle, sword-wielding statues and shocking reversals of fortune."
(blurb taken from Amazon)

If anybody has read it I'd love to know what you thought!