Once Upon a Time VIII

I don’t do challenges as a rule, but having discovered the Once Upon a Time challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, now in its eighth year(!), I had to join in at the lowest level once I saw the gorgeous artwork.

onceup8275

Carl says:  “This is a reading and viewing event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing whims.

The Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge has a few rules:
Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.

While this event retains the word “challenge” from its earliest days, the entire goal is to read good books, watch good television shows and movies, and most importantly, visit old friends and make new ones. There are several ways to participate, and I hope you can find at least one to your liking:”

once8journey

“This is really as simple as the name implies. It means you are participating, but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. By signing up for The Journey you are agreeing to read at least one book within one of the four categories during March 21st to June 21st period. Just one book. If you choose to read more, fantastic! If not, then we have still had the pleasure of your company during this three month reading journey and hopefully you have read a great book, met some interesting people, and enjoyed the various activities that occur during the challenge. It has always been of utmost importance to me that the challenges that I host be all about experiencing enjoyable literature and sharing it with others. I want you to participate. Hence, The Journey.”

I can cope with that.  Just one book with three months to read it in.  I have so many that fit the criteria already on my shelves – but which one?

Some of the contenders are:

  • Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire (Fairy tale)
  • Runelight and Runemarks by Joanne Harris (Folklore/Mythology/Fantasy)
  • The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino (Mythology)
  • The ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman (Fantasy)

I could read all of them, but which would you choose first? 

Advertisements

A charming adventure inside fairy tales …

goodbye yellow brick roadMost of you will know Ian Beck’s work without even realising it. He is an illustrator of renown and amongst many other things designed the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

In the early 1980s, he started to write and illustrate picture books for young children, and later moved into writing children’s novels. I read and loved his book for older children, Pastworld (reviewed here), which featured London reinvented as a Dickensian theme park.

I’d bought a copy of Tom Trueheart, his first children’s novel, back when it was published. My daughter had enjoyed many of his picture books, yet somehow it stayed on the shelf until I rediscovered it the other day …

The Secret History of Tom TrueheartBoy Adventurer by Ian Beck

Hardback

I do love it when authors find an original way of using old fairy tales and that’s just what Ian Beck has done in this charming novel for children.

Tom Trueheart is nearly twelve. He comes from a celebrated family of adventurers – he has six brothers all called Jack (or variations thereon).

They are all employed by the Story Bureau who devise adventures and send the Jacks off to play the roles in ‘The Land of Stories’ and finish the tales. When it’s over the Jacks tell the Bureau what happened and they write it up into the story books that everyone reads.

The basic plots are thought up by the Story Deviser at the Bureau – Brother Ormestone, who is to present his latest ideas at their meeting:

‘If I may, Master,’ said Brother Ormestone, ‘I have been completely redrafting the ideas for the story which we discussed at our last meeting. “The Adventure of the Fair Princess Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs”.  During the second half of the story, by allowing the young Snow White to escape the hunter and his knife, she can then be found in the woods and sheltered by the seventeen dwarfs. Or she could even find them in her panic to escape. We will use the north-eastern area, the deep woods in the mountains, if our Brother Treasurer could supply a nicely turned-out bright cottage, able to house eighteen, well hidden away, for them all to live in.’

‘The cottage will not be a problem, there are several we can dress ready,’ said the treasurer, a severe bearded figure in grey, who sat at the other end of the table. ‘The seventeen dwarfs, now that is your problem: I can supply a maximum of seven for any story.’

‘Seven,’ said Brother Ormestone in his most chilling voice. ‘Seven. Dear me, dear me no. I have worked long and hard on this story and it definitely involves seventeen dwarfs of varied and, I am afraid, somewhat twisted character.’ He emphasized the word ‘twisted’ in such a way that it caused the Master’s skin to crawl, …

… ‘In any case, Ormestone, we have heard enought for now. You have, as usual lately, gone too far in the planning of these stories,’ said the Master shaking his head. ‘There is nothing left for the adventurers to actually do. Your story plans have got longer and longer. It is almost as if you are tying to get rid of the adventurers’ role altogether. You know the rules as well as the rest of us. We suggest the beginning of things only. We set things up for the adventurers, and they carry out the adventure. It is not up to us to wrap it all up for them and tie a ribbon round it with our name on it.’

Thus embarrassed again, Ormestone in his jealousy of the adventurers hatches a dastardly plan to have his vengeance on the Trueheart family.

Over the next days, one by one, the brothers Jack get sent off on new adventures, one to be Prince Charming, one a frog prince, another to rescue the sleeping princess and so on – you get the picture.  They all swear to be home in time for Tom’s twelfth birthday, the age at which he can become an apprentice adventurer – but one by one they don’t return.

Tom has to celebrate his birthday with just his mother. The next day a letter arrives for him by sprite-mail with an adventure.  As the last adventurer left, it will be Tom’s job to find his brothers and get all the tales finished.  He bravely sets off, accompanied by a talking crow called Jollity (a sprite in disguise who is to keep an eye on him).

Young Tom will have the adventure of a lifetime.

I was captivated by this story.  It touches upon all those fairy tales we know so well, but which are held in hiatus by their missing princes. Tom passes through each of the tales in turn and stops them from collapsing in on themselves, keeping them alive for the return of his brothers.

This is done with surprising subtlety and gives each of the classic tales in their basic form some added depth, as we see how the cast are actors playing parts. (At some subterranean level, I wondered whether Beck’s ‘Land of stories’ is a satire on Disneyland?’ – theme parks seem to be a fixation of Beck’s!)

Ideal for those children who aren’t quite ready for the small print of Harry Potter, they will love spotting the familiar tales, and thrill along with young Tom as he finds himself in peril from the evil machinations of Brother Ormestone. The book is also full of Beck’s lovely silhouette illustrations as on the hardback’s cover which make it a pleasure to read.

Beck has since written two more volumes of Tom Trueheart’s adventures, and I must say I’d love to read them. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck, (2007) OUP Oxford, paperback 320 pages.

What the new Hoffmann addict read on Christmas Day …

The Nutcracker & The Strange Child by E.T.A. Hoffmann, translated by Anthea Bell

Nutcracker

My mum was a huge ballet fan, and it was a much-anticipated Christmas treat to be taken to London to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, preferably at the Royal Opera House for a grander experience and better tree (see below). It was my favourite of the Christmas ballets; although I got to see bigger ballet stars in Cinderella or The Sleeping Beauty in other years, I loved The Nutcracker the best.

I had two favourite bits – The Russian Dance in Act II for the music and dancing, but for the real WOW! moment – it’s got to be when everyone’s gone to bed except Clara and Drosselmeier, and the Christmas tree grows.

See this clip from the 2008 production at the ROH – That’s how to do the tree properly!

I was thinking of this as I read the original story of The Nutcracker this Christmas, another classic fairy tale by German Romantic author ETA Hoffmann, whom I discovered a couple of weeks ago for the first time when I read The Sandman, (reviewed here).  Needless to say the ballet is based upon a dumbed-down version written for children by Alexandre Dumas (père), and Hoffmann’s original is much darker.

It is a family Christmas, and Fritz and Marie (Clara in the ballet) are enjoying the presents brought by their Godfather Drosselmeier who makes automata and clockwork toys.

Legal Councillor Drosselmeier ws not a handsome man; he was small and thin, with a wrinkled face, and he had a big black patch over his right eye. He was bald, so he wore a very fine white wig made of glass, a most ingenious piece of work. Councillor Drosselmeier was a very ingenious man himself. He knew all about clocks, and could even make them. So if one of the fine clocks in the Stahmbaums’ house went wrong, and its chimes failed to ring out, Godfather Drosselmeier came to call, took off his glass wig, removed his yellow coat, tied a blue apron around his waist and poked at the insides of the clockwork with various pointed instruments. …

When Councillor Drosselmeier came visiting he always had something pretty for the children in his bag, sometimes a little manikin that could roll its eyes and bow – that was a comical sight – sometimes a box with a little bird that hopped out of it, sometimes another toy. But at Christmas he had always made them something that was particularly elaborate and had meant a great deal of work for him, and once he had given it to the children their parents put it away and took care of it.

Tiring of the toys, Drosselmeier produces a nutcracker in the shape of a man who cracks nuts with his teeth. It is not a pretty toy, but Marie is drawn to it – Fritz grabs it and breaks it, and Marie nurses the toy.  Fritz had been taunting Marie earlier about mice in the skirting boards, and when she falls asleep the toys come to life and the toy soldiers fight the Mouse King who has seven heads. Her Godfather Drosselmeier appears as an evil owl on the mice’s side. Overwhelmed, the Nutcracker seems doomed so Marie throws her shoe at the Mouse King saving him.

She awakes to find it all a dream – or was it?  Godfather Drosselmeier tells the children the story of Princess Pirlipat and the hardest nut to crack, which explains why nutcrackers are ugly. Marie loves the Nutcracker doll, and at night the Mouse King returns and together they defeat him and the Nutcracker is revealed to be an enchanted Prince. He takes Marie to the Kingdom of Toys where all the lands are named after candies and they are betrothed in due course.

Hoffmann obviously had an interest about mechanical toys and automata – indeed the brief notes at the end of the volume confirm this . Toys coming to life have long been the stuff of nightmares (especially in films like Magic and the ones with that Chucky doll in). I liked that the toys in The Nutcracker’s case were on the side of good as in Toy Story, and the evil monsters came from the ‘real’ world. It was perfect Christmas reading.

This edition from Pushkin Press paired The Nutcracker with a lesser known tale from Hoffmann – The Strange Child. This is the tale of two children who live in the country and have a wonderful life running wild in the woods. One day their rich relatives come to visit from the city, bringing gifts of toys. and tell their parents that they will send a schoolmaster for the children.  Meanwhile, the children abandon their new toys in the woods, preferring natural pursuits, when they meet a strange child who becomes their new playmate.  When their new evil tutor arrives, the children are banned from the woods, confining them to the stuffy schoolroom and the tutor scares them stiff, buzzing around them like a fly. I won’t say how it ends, except that it’s suitably Gothic and moralistic.

I adored the Nutcracker, and enjoyed the much darker Strange Child too, my reading enhanced by the lovely quality of the Pushkin Press edition.  I’m going to get some more tales of Hoffmann, and revisit some of his contemporaries, notably the Brothers Grimm, too to compare the style.

So another Hit from Hoffmann! (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nutcracker The Strange Child (Pushkin Collection) by ETA Hoffmann, Pushkin Press 2010 translated by Anthea Bell, 206 pages.

A Russian fairytale

The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw

miracle-and-grief

Leonid Borodin was a writer, Soviet dissident and Christian. He was born in Irkutsk – one of those areas of Russia only familiar to me through the board-game Risk! He was imprisoned twice, the second time after the English publication of his writing in the mid 1980s. He died in 2011. Quartet books have recently republished The Year of Miracle and Grief in a handsome quality paperback, and I was sent a copy.

One summer, a twelve-year-old boy comes to a railway town on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where his parents are to teach at the school. He soon makes friends with the other local children, and spends most of his time outdoors, fishing, swimming, making rafts, building dams, doing boyish things until suppertime.

He is mesmerised by the beauty of the lake and mountains, and keeps finding his eye drawn to a lonely crag with a straggly pine tree on it. The rocky outcrop is known as Dead Man’s Crag – his friends warn him against going up there however the boy, (who is unnamed) feels compelled to try. He scrambles up to the ledge only to discover an wizened old crone sitting there. Once she’s scared him half to death, she introduces herself as Sarma, great grand-daughter of the Great Sibyr. She forces him into a cave, telling to go down to the bottom and return to tell her what was happening.  He goes in, down many stairs before arriving in an immense hall:

On a high-backed throne set on a small rocky platform sat an old man. At least he seemed to me to be very old under the thick white beard which fell to his chest. His clothes, halfway between a smock and a cloak, were navy blue, and against this background the white beard looked like sea foam…  White eyebrows covered his eyes. The face looked sad and austere.
At his left hand, her head leaning on the armrest of the throne, sat a little girl of eleven or twelve. Her dark chestnut hair was hanging down from the armrest and the old man’s hand was resting on the child’s knees. The armchair she was sitting on was somewhat smaller than the throne, but its back was just as high. On the little girl’s left, with his head resting on outstretched paws, lay a small black dog with a brown patch above his eyes.
And all three of them . . . were asleep.

Sarma had flooded the valley to make Lake Baikal in retribution for the Prince who lived there accidentally letting her son die. Ever since she has held the Prince and his daughter Ri captive, unable to forgive, still grieving. The boy, naturally, falls for Ri and begs Sarma to let him come and visit again. After many visits he tries to persuade Sarma to set Ri free, and Sarma bargains – accepting her terms will change his life totally.

Rooted in local myths of the origins of this bleak and beautiful landscape this fairy-tale is, like all the best of its kind, strong on the consequences of dealing with magic. There is a price in suffering to pay for changing the equilibrium. Borodin was a Christian, and so the fairy-tale almost becomes a kind of parable about forgiveness and grief.

Where this book excelled for me though was in the descriptions of the ever-changing moods of the lake and its environs, going from transcendent beauty to stormy waves to icy danger. The translator, Jennifer Bradshaw has done a great job here. For instance, one day:

The water no longer looked like glass. I had the feeling that an immense blue tablecloth had been stretched out between the four points of the compass and that beasts were walking underneath it, unable to reach the shore. The smooth shining waves were not lapping against the bank but flowing on to it in a film of transparent sky blue.

From the start, we know that the boy survives all his trials, as the story is recounted by an older and wiser self. This degree of hindsight and first-person narration gives a totally different slant on what happens, it’s not as immediate as a certain other tale I’ve read recently involving magical sleeping beings in a cave deep under a hill I can think of (Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen that is); they do share the love of landscape though.

If you love Russian landscapes and fairytales this story, at first deceptively simple but then complex underneath, may be one for you. (8/10).

* * * * *
Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Year of Miracle and Grief by Leonid Borodin, Quartet paperback, 190 pages, republished Nov 2013.

Once upon a time, there was a girl who didn’t read proper fairy tales …

When I was little, the books I enjoyed reading the most were fairy tales. My childhood favourite was the Puffin A Book of Princesses selected by Sally Patrick Johnson published in 1965. It’s a great collection combining old tales like The Twelve Dancing Princesses with ones by E E Nesbit and Oscar Wilde. I still have my copy somewhere complete with coloured in illustrations.

Soon, I was devouring the wonderful fairy tale collections of Andrew Lang. I’ve been addicted to fairy tales ever since, building up a collection of volumes from around the world together with commentaries on the subject.

Lang’s collections comprise twelve volumes in every colour of the rainbow, not to be confused with the Rainbow Magic franchise that today’s early readers are offered. There are over 150 of these tediously similar stories for little girls now! My daughter did read some of them when she was five or six, but by the time we’d read maybe a dozen, she lost interest, (phew!). These books are written by a wide range of authors under the name Daisy Meadows, and always feature two schoolgirls Kirsty and Rachel who have adventures with their fairy friends. I’m sure they do have some value in building confidence in young readers, but they are seriously formulaic, very sanitised, and frankly no-one needs 150 of them.

Many of the traditional fairy tales were not written specifically for children, although they were included in the intended readership by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s for instance.  In their original versions, some of these tales are very dark indeed, being full of violence with people getting eaten by wolves as in Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood, (1697) or tragic like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and Little Match Girl, (1830s-40s).

With all the animated Disney adaptations, enjoyable as they are, but which reinvent the traditional tales with new happy endings, and the formula books mentioned above, I feel that general opinion has rather dumbed down fairy tales as stories for young children. We know better.  My daughter, however, gave up fairy tales completely – swapping them for family dramas by Jacqueline Wilson, Hilary McKay, Sophie McKenzie et al.  Quietly, I despaired…

…then a couple of days ago, I found her starring at my Folio fairy tale shelf …

She was admiring the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, and she said could we start reading them.  We started with Lang’s rather different version of the Three little pigs from the Green Fairy Book, but then she decided she wanted to start at the beginning and read all of them – so back to the Blue Fairy Book (which is the first chronologically too, but I’ll have to adjust the order of the others though on the shelf!).

I asked why the sudden interest? She said that she hadn’t realised that the Three little pigs was considered a fairy tale, and that they didn’t necessarily have to have fairies in. That, plus she liked the book colours and covers. I hope her interest is sparked by reading these together, and that she can cope when we do meet a fairy, especially as the violet and brown volumes will be joining the others soon!

Do you have an opnion about the dumbing down of traditional folk and fairy tales?
Is our current fad for ghosts, vampires & zombies squeezing fairies out?
Which are your favourite fairy tales?

* * * * *
To explore further at the Folio Society or Amazon UK, click on the links below:
Folio Society – Andrew Lang Fairy Books (Membership requirements apply)Book of Princesses (Puffin books)selected by Sally Patrick Johnson (available second-hand)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Vintage Classics)
Fairy Tales (Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions)
The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)
Olympia the Games Fairy (Rainbow Magic) by Daisy Meadows

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

* * * * *

The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

* * * * *
I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

Press rewind and edit … Two novellas by Robert Coover

Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid by Robert Coover

Earlier this year, I discovered American author Robert Coover when I was sent his volume in the Pengiun Mini Modern Classics series to read and review (click here).  One of the three stories in that collection, a novella called The Babysitter, was a mini masterpiece; the other two were pretty good too.  I duly resolved to read more of this fascinating author, and soon got the opportunity, as Penguin have reissued three of his books in their new format; I got a freebie through the Amazon Vine programme.

From my Coover reading so far, it would seem that he has two main preoccupations – fairy tales and sex.

These come together in Briar Rose which is a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty. Coover’s version though is nothing like you’ve read before. It’s dark and nasty, but totally unlike say how Angela Carter would treat it.  The familiar elements are there: a princess has pricked her finger on a spindle and lies asleep for a hundred years, and a prince arrives to battle through the briars and greet his true love with a kiss.  That is where the similarity ends. Coover imagines what might happen if the wrong prince turned up and raped the princess? What if the princess grew old while asleep? What happens to her bodily fluids? – Yes!  There are hundreds of possible outcomes and he leads us through them in a series of vignettes. We’re never sure whether the princess is dreaming them, or whether they happened and she is doomed to go through it all again until the right prince comes along.  Meanwhile,  between these iterations from sleeping beauty’s point of view, are a similar set of the prince. Wondering what she’ll look like. Will he be the first. Will he be the one?  He battles through the briars for ever it seems, and he begins to wonder if it was worth it…

Spanking the Maid has a similar structure.  Each day, a maid arrives to clean her master’s bedroom, but she always gets something wrong and has to be chastised for it.  She tries so hard, but can never reach perfection, and submits to her punishment, resolving to do better next time.  Her master, doesn’t want to administer it, but feels he has to, to teach her a lesson.  Coover describes the daily spanking in great detail and I was just wishing for it to end.

Coover employed the same stylistic tricks in The Babysitter, (which is in his collection Pricksongs and descants along with several more fairy tales). However in that story, the multiple viewpoints and retelling of events did creep towards a real climax and a thoroughly resolved ending.  Both of these novellas had a ‘There must be more to life than this’ feel for me, and finished on a whimper rather than a bang.  They were both thoroughly distasteful too, full of base emotions, not a whiff of fairy tale romance of real relief!

Although I did wish for both stories to end so I could be released from the vicious cycle of the recesses of his imagination, the writing was compelling. I do feel I would need more stamina to cope with a full length novel of this intensity though. (7.5/10)

For another view on this book, visit Just William’s Luck

* * * * *
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Briar Rose & Spanking the Maid (Penguin Modern Classics)
Pricksongs & Descants (Penguin Modern Classics)