A couple of weeks ago I found this lovely copy of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book in a charity shop and as if by magic it seemed to find it’s way home with me……I’ve got more fairy tale and folk story books than you can shake a stick at but they have been my favourite stories to lose myself in since I was a little girl and first learnt to read.
Once upon a time……when you open a book and it starts with those four magical words you just know you are going to be swept up in a story of wishes and wonderful things, dark woods and gingerbread houses….
I’ve been wanting to write a little bit about my love of these stories for a while, and it seems suitable to do so now that the weather has become cold and the nights dark…these are the books I reach out for to read when I go to bed and can huddle down under a mass of quilts and crocheted blankets.
Even now I’m all grown up I still love them….my favourites being the Charles Perrault ones (Beauty and the Beast and Red Riding Hood), old English stories such as Mister Fox (he certainly isn’t the same fantastic gentleman written about by Roald Dahl) and Kate Crackernuts and wonderfully rich tales from Russia, which include Vasilisa The Beautiful (Baba Yaga and her walking house are in this story.)
Something I particularly like about the English folk tales is that there is a old earthiness about the stories, and often they use snippets of old dialect or words that have fell out of common usage. A lot of the stories collected by Katharine Briggs and Ruth L. Tongue are good examples of this. They are as comforting and familiar to me as a saggy and worn cardigan, and at this time of year are as satisfying as a rooty casserole and fat steamed dumplings.
One of the things I love about these type of tales are the magical qualities or just wonderfully described clothing or cloth that often plays a central role in the tale…..without her red cape, Red Riding Hood would have been a quite ordinary little girl on her way to grandmothers house, the princess in The Princess and the pea would probably have slept just as poorly on just the one mattress and eiderdown (instead of the umpteen mentioned) Cinderella has her wonderful dresses…like the stars, like the moon, like the sun…and let’s not forget those glass slippers, then there are shirts knitted from nettles, magical boots, Catskin’s furs, hair combs and bodices laced too tight……
I didn’t really understand the significance of spinning flax into gold in the Rumplestiltskin story until quite recently, I watched one of the brilliant “farm programmes” * with Ruth Goodman (possibly the most wonderful tv historian I can think of…she’s so lovely and enthusiastic, I could happily watch her all day. She truly makes the past come alive with it’s richness of smells and sounds and tastes), the flax is beaten so the outside husk drops off, and eventually as the flax is whipped/beaten the fibres break down and it looks like beautiful long blonde hair. It really does look like golden strands and it doesn’t take much to imagine it being real gold.
Another story that I’ve always loved and which makes my fingers tingle somewhat in sympathy is The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Anderson (it’s one of the few stories by him I really care for) poor princess Elisa has to gather nettles and knit (or spin) them into shirts which will transform her brothers back into boy after they’ve been turned into swans. In the story poor Elisa has blistered sore fingers and hands from handling the nettles….Actually this isn’t all just story, nettles really can be made into cloth. (in the New Year I’m planning to make a shirt out of nettle cloth, with embroidered nettle stems and leaves and the odd lone feather as a nod to this fairy tale)
Along with the European stories with their deep dark woods, and brave youngest sons or daughters, I also like reading tales and legends from China and Japan and who could forget the wonderful 1001 nights with Scheherazade telling the Sultan all those fantastic stories….(many of these are rather eye opening and I don’t think they’ll ever be made into a panto!)
Some years ago I watched a television adaptation called Arabian Nights…..Mili Avital was Scheherazade, Rufus Sewell was Ali Baba, and John Leguizamo was the most magnificent genie of the lamp you’ve ever seen….there were some lovely details in it, in the Aladdin story, Aladdin (played by Jason Scott Lee) finds a hidden terracotta army deep in a cave underground, it was really scary and brilliant and very good to watch.
Back in the very early nineties, Virago published a wonderful couple of fairy tale collections compiled by Angela Carter…these are more suitable for a grown up reader (and they are now available in one beautiful hardback with gorgeous woodcut illustrations). They also published a book about witches which is great to read and the rather saucy and utterly brilliant “Erotic Myths and Legends”…..some of the stories in there made me laugh out loud, and others are somewhat more racy and made me reach for a fan!
I also enjoy reading about what makes these stories resonate and speak to us, Marie Lousie von Franz was a Jungian psychologist and she wrote a series of books connecting the psychological wisdom of fairy tales to everyday life (and it’s chores and repetitions). She’s a favourite author and I particularly like her Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales and The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.
Another book I like is called Women who run with the Wolves by Clarrisa Pinkola Estes.
As well as traditional version of these tales I also like reading newer versions…there is a wonderful collection of Angela Carter stories called The Bloody Chamber (there is a short story in there called A Company of Wolves and this was the basis for the beautiful and slightly gothic eighties film directed by Neil Jordan….I first saw this when I was a teenager and have loved it ever since…..and it taught me to always be wary of men whose eyebrows meet in the middle.)
Jane Yolen edited a wonderful series of books that are all re-workings of tradtional fairy and folk tales…..again I think these are more suitable for a grown up reader.
Lastly, and this isn’t a book but it’s so so so a thousand times fantastic, and just perfect to watch now the nights are dark and it’s cold outside, and if it’s a bit early still for watching Christmas movies…..There was a wonderful series on television years ago called The Storyteller. It was made by Jim Henson and it is just so ….ohhhI’m almost lost for words because it’s totally and utterly brilliant. If you’ve not seen it then pop to your library or just buy it, you won’t be disappointed. (we watched it at home, me, my sisters, my dad….my mum was probably in the kitchen getting tea ready….but we all loved it) It’s a marvellous collection of an assortment of European folk stories with a cast that is sure to make you smile….Sean Bean (before he was Ned “Winter is coming”Stark), Jane Horrocks, French and Saunders, Steven Mackintosh (one of my all time favourite actors), Miranda Richardson, Jonathan Pryce, James Wilby……and not forgetting John Hurt as the narrator (when he becomes a hare it makes me laugh and breaks my heart both at the same time). The stories told are both familiar and slightly different, the costumes are beautiful …and the narrators dog does somewhat steal the scenes he’s in. Their version of a Cinderella story (in this it’s called Sapsorrow and in English folk tales it’s known at Catskin) never fails to make me get a tingly nose and a bit weapy…her dresses are just amazing.
It captures the essence and how we imagine these tales to look so perfectly…..it’s both the magic of a fairy tale and the magic that was Jim Henson.