Thursday, 15 September 2016

Be bold, be bold! (But not too bold.)

People often assume there aren’t very many English fairy tales.  There are, of course, but they were eclipsed in popularity by the much better-known German and French tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. During the 19th century the English were, on the whole, keener on translating other peoples’ fairy tales than collecting their own: possibly (as I say in another place) because the Europe-wide fashion for collecting traditional tales was driven by nationalism, and Victorian Englishmen didn’t feel they had anything much to prove. So generations of English children grew up knowing about Rumpelstilskin and Cinderella, and nothing about Tom Tit Tot and Ashie-Coat.  

It took an Australian Jew, Joseph Jacobs, to notice this and do something about it. ‘Who says that English folk have no fairy-tales of their own?’ he asks in the introduction to his 'English Fairy Tales’, 1898. ‘The present volume contains only a selection out of some 140, of which I have found traces in this country. It is probable that many more exist.’
One of those tales is an all-time favourite of mine, ‘Mr Fox’.  It’s the oldest known version of the ‘Bluebeard’ story, and I wrote about it in my recent book ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, where I explain why I think it’s about a million times better than ‘Bluebeard’. It’s about a girl called Lady Mary who becomes curious – maybe even suspicious – when her fiancé, the suave Mr Fox, is unwilling to let her visit his castle. So when he announces he has to go away for a day just prior to their wedding, she sets off deep into the woods to find the place for herself.

And there it is, a beautiful castle: but above the gateway a strange motto is carved into the stone: ‘Be bold, be bold’. Lady Mary passes under the gateway and into the courtyard. The place is quite empty, not a soul anywhere about. Crossing the yard to the the doorway of the keep, she finds the same motto again, this time longer: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’.  On she goes:

Still she went on till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place…

As she hurries down the stairs she sees Mr Fox himself coming into the hall, dragging a beautiful young woman behind him who seems to have fainted. Lady Mary hides behind a cask, and witnesses Mr Fox cutting off the young woman’s hand:

Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed … so Mr Fox cursed and swore, and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped into the air, and fell of all places into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked about a bit but did not think of looking behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.

Lady Mary runs home, but that’s not the end. Next day this self-possessed and steely heroine meets Mr Fox at a splendid family breakfast where the contract of their marriage is to be signed. ‘How pale you are this morning, my dear,’ exclaims Mr Fox. 

‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.’
‘Dreams go by contraries,’ said Mr Fox; ‘but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.’
‘I dreamed,’ said Lady Mary, ‘that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:
               Be bold, be bold.
‘But it is not so, nor it was not so,’ said Mr Fox.

As Lady Mary continues and the mottoes intensify their warnings, so Mr Fox’s denials become stronger: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so’ – till finally Lady Mary springs to her feet. 

‘It is so and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,’ and pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress and pointed it straight at Mr Fox.
At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces.

This is a great story with a brave, intelligent heroine, and it’s beautifully structured. I’ve told it aloud many times to children and they always love it. But where did Joseph Jacobs find it?  Well, he found it as an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare ( ‘Malone’s Variorum Shakespeare’). 

This of course isn't the original 1790 edition, which I couldn't find, but from 1821.

There’s a bit in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Act I, Sc 1, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’  A certain Mr Blakeway contributed a note to explain this reference:

I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps still be extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood. 

Mr Blakeway then recounts the whole tale, though with less artistry than Joseph Jacobs: he’s supplying a note, after all, not writing a story:

Over the portal of the hall was written: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold:’ she advanced: over the stair-case, the same inscription: she went up: over the entrance of a gallery, the same: she proceeded: over the door of a chamber, – ‘Be bold, be bold,but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.’ She opened it; it was full of skeletons, tubs of blood, &c. She retreated in haste…

Blakeway concludes,

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.

John Brickdale Blakeway was born in Shrewsbury in 1765, the eldest son of Joshua Blakeway and Elizabeth Brickdale. He studied law, was ordained in 1793, became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1807 and died in 1826. His great-aunt probably told young John this tale when he was about ten, and she must have heard it in her own childhood some time between say 1710 and 1725.  This is still over a century since Shakespeare’s death, but the story happens to be one which is very easy to remember, full of repetition – the tale is actually told twice – and memorable phrases. (I’ve known children who could tell it well having heard it only once.) In 1598 Shakespeare’s Benedick quotes one of these phrases:‘It is not so and it was not so and God forbid it should be so’, and calls it an ‘old tale’. 

Edmund Spenser’s immensely long narrative poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, references the other quotable quote from 'Mr Fox' in Book 3, Canto XI, verses 50 to 54: when the gallant ‘warlike Maid’ Britomart (allegorically Chastity) is exploring the House of Busirane (the House of Violence and Lust) to find and rescue the enchanter Busirane’s tortured victim Amoret. As Britomart makes her way through room after room decorated with pictures and tapestries of ravished women (and one boy), she notices something else:

Over the door thus written she did spy
Be bold: she oft and oft it over-read…

Just like Lady Mary, Britomart is not dismayed - ‘But forward with bold steps into the next room went’. And just as in ‘Mr Fox’, the castle is silent and empty - ‘Strange thing it seemed’!  Eventually,

…as she looked about, she did behold
How over that same door was likewise writ
Be bold, be bold, and everywhere Be bold,
That much she mazed, and could not construe it
By any riddling skill or common wit.
At last she spied at that room’s upper end,
Another iron door, on which was writ,
Be not too bold

The first three books of ‘The Faerie Queene’ were published in 1596. This therefore appears to be the earliest reference to the ‘old tale’ of ‘Mr Fox’.  It must once have been very well known.  But if John Blakemore hadn’t written it down, it would have disappeared. His account is the only complete source for this English fairy tale. 

I was talking about all this this recently with a good friend, the author John Dickinson (who writes wonderful fantasy and sci-fi): in fact it was he who pointed me in the direction of ‘The Faerie Queene’. He electrified me by telling me that in his local church of St Mary in Painswick, Gloucestershire, the words ‘Be bold, be bold’ are actually cut into one of the pillars. Local tradition has it that the words were carved by one of a group of Parliamentarian soldiers besieged in the church during the English Civil War, and that they are a quotation from ‘The Faerie Queene’. I was so excited about this that John invited me to come over and see the inscription.  And here it is.



Let’s take the first bit first.  In modern spelling: ‘THOU WHO MADE THIS RICHARD FORT BE BOLD BE BOLD BUT NOT TOO BOLD’. Some man named Richard Fort is addressing God (who ‘made’ him) and adding an – appeal? a prayer? a command? a warning? – perhaps to God, perhaps to himself, to ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’ 

Painswick Church was indeed besieged in the year 1644. There’s an account in ‘A Cotteswold Manor; being the history of Painswick’ written by the wonderfully named Welbore St Clair Baddeley and published in 1907. In 1644 the countryside around the city of Gloucester (which had survived a siege by Royalist forces the previous autumn) was in turmoil, with Royalists and Parliamentarians exchanging raids and committing atrocities on both sides. Enter the fearsome Colonel Mynne, leading a regiment of Royalist Catholic infantry raised in Ireland. Arriving in Bristol, Mynne and his men stormed their way across Gloucestershire and in February 1644 arrived at Painswick. The Parliamentarian Attorney General, Backhouse, quartered in Gloucester, writes: 

‘We heard … that Colonel Mynne and St Leger with the Irish forces march’t to Painswicke for subsistence,  but indeed to plunder the country, to prevent which, our Governor (Massey) drew out a party of Horse and Foot, where there was a skirmish and some losse on both sides.’ 

Whether this skirmish was successful or not, some time later Mynne’s Royalist forces withdrew and a garrison of Massey’s Parliamentarian troops moved into Painswick. In the back-and-forth of that wretched time, they were not to remain there long. The King’s man Sir William Vavasour marched on Painswick with ‘a strong brigade’ and two ‘culverins’ or light cannons. The Parliament soldiers, who had taken up a defensive position in a house near the church, were not strong enough to hold off anything much bigger than a plundering party, and had been told to make good their retreat down the steep hill towards Brookthorp if the Royalist force was substantial. But the lieutenant commanding them, ‘… not understanding the strength of the (opponents) army’ and encouraged by ‘many willing people of the neighbourhood in that weak hold’, instead of withdrawing, remained to fight. Finding himself overwhelmed ‘upon the first onset’, he deserted the house and took his men into the church. It was a move from the frying pan into the fire: the Royalists burned down the door and threw ‘hand-granadoes’ into the church where ‘some few were slain in defending the place, and the rest taken prisoners.’  [This contemporary account is quoted in the ‘History of the Church of St Mary at Painswick’ by Welbore St Clair Baddeley, 1902]

Here, then, is the likely scenario for the cutting of those words ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’ on the church pillar at Painswick. Richard Fort – whether he was one of the ‘willing’ neighbours or a Parliamentarian soldier – was holed up inside St Mary’s with the other men who were the victims of their lieutenant’s mistake. They’d barred the doors, they couldn’t get out, and they were listening to the yells and jeers of the Royalist force outside in the churchyard – and wondering what would be the next move. 

How long did they have?  Was it really long enough for Richard Fort to carve all those words? And why did they spring to his mind in the first place? Had the lieutenant urged his men to ‘be bold’?  (See what had come of that!) Parliamentarians called Royalists ‘malignants’: Painswick people had already had a taste of the ravening Colonel Mynne. Perhaps two things came together in Richard Fort's head – the adjuration to ‘be bold’, and the enclosed stone trap of the church, with the enemy about to burst in.  Perhaps Richard was an educated man who had read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and remembered the armed figure of Chastity, Britomart, waiting for her enemy, afraid to lay her weapons aside: 

Thus there she waited until eventide,
Yet living creature none she saw appear:
And now sad shadows ‘gan the world to hide,
From mortall view, and wrap in darkness drear.
Yet n’ould she doff her weary arms, for fear
Of secret danger, nor let sleep oppress
Her heavy eyes with nature’s burden dear,
But drew herself aside in sikernesse [assuredness]
And her wellpointed weapons did about her dress.

Or it may be Richard simply remembered the story of ‘Mr Fox’ told to him in childhood by his mother or aunt or sister, and saw its relevance, and began cutting those words to distract himself.  Did he even feel his God had let him down? ‘Thou who made this Richard Fort be bold be bold but not too bold…’ I think he did carve the words while he waited, especially as you can see at the end of the inscription on the pillar the shallow-cut beginning of two more words: ‘AND WHE…’

What was he going to say? We’ll never know. He didn’t have time to finish, so perhaps he was interrupted: perhaps, before he could grind those letters any deeper, the church door began smoking; perhaps it burst into flame. Perhaps these unfinished letters resemble those found in another stone trap, the fictional Chamber of Mazarbul in Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’:

‘The last thing written is a trailing scrawl of elf letters: they are coming.’

Picture credits

Mr Fox, illustration by John Batten from Joseph Jacobs' 'English Fairy Tales' 
Britomart in the house of Busyrane, by Walter Crane
'Be bold', inscription on pillar, St Mary's Painswick, photo by Katherine Langrish

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Slippers of Glass, Slippers of Fur - on Cinderella's shoes

There are extraordinary numbers of superstitions about shoes - though most are now unfamiliar to us 21st century mortals.  According to Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s ‘Dictionary of Superstitions’, an old shoe hung up at the fireside was thought to bring luck. You turned your shoes upside down to prevent nightmares or to stop a dog from howling; it was unlucky to put your right shoe on before your left; burning a pair of old shoes could prevent children from being stolen by the fairies; bad luck was bound to follow if a pair of new shoes was placed upon a table -- and so on and on. In fact, shoes have often been often hidden within the fabric of buildings, possibly as apotropaic charms to ward off evil.

Here's a photo of a whole collection of such shoes from East Anglia, courtesy of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service. Northampton Museum keeps a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’; in a pamplet written for the museum J.M. Swann describes some of the finds, dating from the early 15th century into the 20th:  

The shoes are usually found not in the foundations but in the walls, over door lintels, in rubble floors, behind wainscoting, under staircases…  shoes occur singly or with others, very rarely in pairs, occasionally in ‘families’ – a man’s, woman’s, and a range of sizes of children’s. Sometimes they are found with other objects – a candlestick, wooden bowl or pot, wine glass, spoon, knife, sheath, purse, glove, pipe… The condition of the shoes, like the objects found with them, is usually very poor: worn out, patched, repaired.

My mother preserved some tiny silver shoes which were used to decorate her wedding cake. Old shoes used to be thrown after the departing bride and groom for luck and I can remember at least once seeing old boots tied to the bumper of the honeymoon couple's car. Maybe this still happens?  It's a practice which goes back centuries. Opie and Tatem quote John Heywood in 1546: ‘For good lucke, cast an olde shoe after mee’ and Ben Jonson in 1621: ‘Hurle after an olde shooe, I’le be merry what e’er I doe.’  Francis Kilvert writes in his diary for January 1, 1873:

The bride went straightway to her carriage. Someone thrust an old white pair of satin shoes into my hand with which I made an ineffectual shot at the post-boy, and someone else behind me missed the carriage altogether and gave me with an old shoe a terrific blow on the back of the head…

Shoes are very personal items. They literally mould themselves to the shape of an individual’s foot. Anyone who’s sorted through the clothes of someone who’s died will know how the sight of a pair of their empty shoes is especially poignant. It’s as if well-worn shoes have almost become part of the person. Perhaps that’s why, as the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould writes in his 1913 ‘Book of Folk-Lore’ :

…when we say that a man has stepped into his father’s shoes, we mean that the authority, position and consequence of the parent has been transferred to his son.

Now to Cinderella. Numerous variants of the Cinderella story (tale type ATU 510A) include the motif of the heroine’s shoe which is dropped or lost and, when restored and matched to her foot, proves her identity and worth.  In Basile’s ‘La Gatta Cenerentola’ or ‘The Hearth-Cat’ (1634) the heroine Zezolla drops a fashionable ‘stilted shoe’ or ‘chopine’ as she escapes from the festa: when she appears at a banquet which the King has ordered for all the ladies in the land, it darts to her foot like iron to a magnet.  Chopines were the platform shoe to end all platform shoes – more like towers than platforms, as you can see below – and must have been extremely difficult to walk in: no wonder Zezolla lost one.  (They're almost incredible, but apparently some were as tall as twenty inches high and you can find out more about them here.)

16th century style Venetian chopine

Perrault’s Cinderella has slippers made of glass, such an improbable material for shoes that some have argued it must be a mistake, a confusion between ‘vair’ (parti-coloured fur) and ‘verre’ (glass).  But really, when has improbability ever troubled a fairy tale?  Aschenputtel’s shoes are golden, Scottish Rashin Coatie’s slippers are made of satin, and in one of my favourite versions, the Irish tale ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’, the heroine Trembling gets the jazziest shoes of all. She asks a henwife (a magical figure in Irish tales) for clothes fit to go to church in. On the first day the henwife obliges with a dress as white as snow and green shoes, on the second she provides a dress of black satin and red shoes, and on the third day Trembling demands: 

“A dress red as a rose from the waist down, and white as snow from the waist up; a cape of green on my shoulders, and a hat on my head with a red, a white and a green feather in it, and shoes for my feet with the toes red, the middle white and the backs and heels green.”

Flamboyant in these fairy colours, riding on a white mare with ‘blue and gold-coloured diamond-shaped spots’ all over its body, Trembling cannot enter the church and has to listen to mass from outside the door, but the king’s son sees her and falls in love.  Racing beside Trembling’s horse as she rides away, he pulls a shoe from her foot and searches all Ireland for the fair lady.  

In a story from China dating to 850/860 AD, the heroine Yeh Xien loses and has restored to her a gold shoe ‘as light as down’, and in what may be the oldest recorded variant of the tale – from the early first century AD – there is still a shoe, or at least a sandal.  It comes in part of an account of the Pyramids by the Roman historian, geographer and traveller Strabo. After describing the Pyramids, he explains that one of them: 

… is said to be the tomb of a courtesan, built by her lovers, and whose name, according to Sappho the poetess, was Doriche. She was the mistress of her brother Charaxus, who traded to the port of Naucratis with wine of Lesbos. Others call her Rhodopis.

A story is told of her, that, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from the hands of her female attendant and carried it to Memphis; the eagle soaring over the head of the king, who was administering justice at the time, let the sandal fall into his lap. The king, struck with the shape of the sandal, and the singularity of the accident, sent over the country to discover the woman to whom it belonged. She was found in the city of Naucratis, and brought to the king, who made her his wife. At her death she was honoured with the above-mentioned tomb.

Needless to say, this isn't true... It may be argued that this story doesn’t fit the Cinderella tale type because Rhodopis isn't downtrodden and neglected, but while downtrodden and neglected heroes and heroines are two a penny, the shoe motif seems to me the distinguishing feature of the Cinderella story. And on this evidence, the tale has been around for at least 2000 years. In some versions – as in Basile’s – the shoe literally leaps to the true owner's foot: ‘[Rashin Coatie] ran away to the grey stone, where the red calf dressed her in her bravest dress, and she went to the prince, and the slipper jumped out of his pocket on to her foot, fitting her without any chipping or paring. So the prince married her that very day…’

And well he might: the fitting of the shoe may actually have been part of the ceremony.  The folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in 1913:

In some French provinces, when the bride is about to go to church, all her old shoes have been hidden away. In Roussillon it is always the nearest relative to the bridegroom who puts on her shoes, and these are new. The meaning comes out clearer in Berry, where all the assistants try to put the bride’s shoes on, but fail, and it is only the bridegroom who succeeds. It was also a custom in Germany for the old shoes to be left behind and the new shoes given by the bridegroom to be assumed. 

What did it mean?  Perhaps many things. If it was traditional for the bridegroom to place new shoes on the bride’s feet, it’s possible he was asserting authority over her, especially since Baring-Gould goes on to add that ‘A harsher way … was for him to tread hard on the bride’s foot, to show that he would be master.’  (There are times when one feels that folk-customs aren’t so charming after all. Hum.) Baring-Gould says,  ‘When in the Psalm [Psalm 60] the expression occurs, ‘Over Edom have I cast out My shoe’, the meaning is that Jehovah extended His authority over Edom.’ So a shoe could be a symbol of dominance, of trampling on someone. But in ‘The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren’ Iona and Peter Opie write, ‘When anyone receives a pair of new shoes the custom is to stand on her toes for luck.’  As with most of human nature and culture, it’s all in the interpretation.

The young man kneeling in front of his bride, touching her ankles as he slides new shoes on to her feet – you don’t have to be a died-in-the-wool Freudian to see something sexy about that, and I bet quite a few young couples enjoyed the frisson of – finally! – permitted, public, personal contact.  But I think there’s more to it.  A very long and complicated Irish tale ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’ contains the Cinderella ‘lost shoe’ motif, but the roles are reversed and it’s the princess who tugs the hero’s boot off as he rides past.  Taking on what we tend to think of as the male role in this story type, she proclaims ‘a gathering of all the men in the three islands that she might see who the man was whom the shoe fitted’.  In this case too, as soon as the hero arrives, ‘The shoe was in her hand, and it leaped from her hand till it went on his foot. "You are the man that was on the pony the day that he killed the piast," the princess proclaims, "and you are the man whom I will marry."’  

Given the very personal nature of shoes – people rarely lend them – and the number of superstitions about them, it seems to me that the shoe in the Cinderella stories is more than something to walk about in. First of all, it’s a status symbol: in all of the stories the shoe is of high quality and made of rare materials. This, in a time when many people had no shoes at all. But it seems to me that it belongs to the heroine in almost the same way as her hair or fingernails do: it fits no other foot, no other person can wear it. The Cinder-girl is identified and revealed through the medium of the glass or fur or brocade slipper because her shoes are a magical representation of her true self. 

What chopines said about Zozolla though -- I don't know!

Picture credits:

Cinderella: Watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Wikimedia Commons 

Concealed shoes, St Edmondsbury: Wikimedia Commons

Miniature silver shoes, author's possession.

Reconstruction of a (moderately high) Venetian chopine in the Shoe Museum, Lausanne: Wikimedia Commons

Rashin-Coatie and the Red Calf, by John D. Batten

Cinderella, by Warwick Goble

Thursday, 25 August 2016

"Hansel and Gretel"

In another post from the archives, Adèle Geras reflects on one of the best-loved fairy tales of all time and ends with a wonderful poem.

"Hansel and Gretel"

by Adèle Geras

It’s about hunger. It’s about not being able to cope. It’s about mother love of a warped kind. It deals with contrasts. I love it almost more than any other fairy tale and I’ve never had to articulate why before now and hope I can come up with some good reasons alongside my gut reactions.

I’m an only child. When I was a girl, I wanted siblings more than anything else. I put brothers and sisters into my fiction whenever I can because their interaction fascinates me. In one book, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, I used a photograph of my mother and four of her sisters (she had five and four brothers as well!) as the springboard for the story. So that’s the first thing that makes me like the tale: whatever might happen to them, Hansel and Gretel are TOGETHER. They help one another. They share everything. It’s not clear who’s the elder. In the Humperdinck opera, it seems Gretel is the one who teaches but it’s traditionally Hansel who suggests leaving the trail of breadcrumbs and so forth.

The premise, of parents wanting to rid themselves of their children, is horrendous. But in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and starvation and deprivation in much of Europe, there must have been thousands of desperate families with too many mouths to feed. Infanticide becomes more common when things are tough but these parents don’t commit murder with their own hands. Rather, they try and lose their children in the forest and hope for the worst.

So that’s where we start: with every child’s worst fear. They dread, we all dread, abandonment and the disappearance of the familiar. Whenever we hear about lost children, whenever we think of someone forcibly separated from their parents, our hearts shrink in horror. It’s a fear we can easily imagine.

So: two children lost in the dark wood. Alone, but for the help of a magical white bird. Birds are everywhere: they eat the crumbs and wreck any chance of finding the way home, and it’s a bird who leads them to the magical house of the Witch.

This, the Gingerbread Cottage, the Sugar House, the House made all of sweets and the standout image of the story and it’s immensely powerful. We know it’s a snare and a delusion and Hansel and Gretel do not. In a pantomime way we’re thinking, calling out: Don’t fall for it! It’s a trick. Leave it alone! But they do fall for it. We know that they ought to resist its blandishments but they’re hungry. They haven’t eaten for days. Icing sugar. Toffee. Marzipan. Sticks of barley sugar holding up the lintel. Chocolate’s completely blissful. Then, from a door which I always imagine made of slabs of iced fruit cake (why? Ask Sigmund Freud!) the Witch emerges.

She’s not often portrayed as a traditional black hat and broomstick regulation witch. In the opera, she’s sometimes a grotesquely blown-up and exaggerated cake shop lady: too bosomy, too rouged, too feminine altogether. And she loves, loves, loves children. She loves to eat them. It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak phrase from Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so.” Sendak has said that this was uttered by his aunts and uncles when they pinched his chubby childish cheek in an excessively affectionate way and I can vouch for that kind of language from my own experience. My aunts and uncles, (see above) did just that: they’d pinch my cheek gently and exclaim in Yiddish: A zissaleh! Which means: A sweet little thing!

There we have it. The children’s real father and their stepmother don’t love Hansel and Gretel quite enough to keep the family together. The bad mother, the Witch, loves them so much she wants to consume them. To this end, she locks Hansel up and we have cages, and bones, and fattening him up like a calf. And for an extra nasty twist, we have the Witch turning Gretel into her servant while she’s preparing to feast on Hansel.

The end of the story is gruesome. Gretel tricks the Witch, who is reduced to ashes in her own oven. It’s not exactly bland fare for children. Hansel and Gretel escape and with the help of the White Bird, find their way home. They are carrying the Witch’s treasure with them, which doubtless guarantees them a better welcome than the one they might have expected.

Forests, birds, a witch, a marvellous house made of everything delicious, white pebbles gleaming in the moonlight, a cage, a chicken’s thigh bone, a treasure chest filled with jewels....all these are powerful ingredients but what makes Hansel and Gretel greater than the sum of its parts it the love that sees the brother and sister through the terrible ordeals they have to endure. That abides and it’s stronger than any enchantment you can throw at it.

PS I’m adding a poem here which I wrote years ago. It’s the Witch speaking.....


This time, be careful.
They have removed all the stones
That you used last time.

I have ironed sheets
and put green pears to blacken
on the bottom shelf

of the oven. Come
alone or with another.
That doesn't matter.

My mouth is open,
all my loose teeth are sharpened
and the cake is baked.

Let's pipe the icing
into red blobs like bloodstains
and call them flowers.

Pull the shutters closed.
We'll lick and suck the white hours
until you ripen.

Follow the thin bird.
Stay in those flapping shadows
and you will be bones.

Copyright Adèle Geras

Adèle was born in Jerusalem in 1944 and has published more than 90 books for readers of all ages. Her Egerton Hall trilogy, collected as ‘Happy Ever After’ (Definitions) retells the fairytales of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White setting them in an English boarding school in 1962. She has also published a collection of retellings, brilliantly illustrated by Louise Brierley, called ‘Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories’, but that, alas, is out of print.  

Adèle has loved fairytales all her life, especially the Hans Andersen stories and the Coloured Fairy books by Andrew Lang.  Her most recent books ‘Troy’, ‘Ithaka’ and ‘Dido’ (David Fickling Books) revisit the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but from the viewpoints of some of the common folk caught up and affected by these great dramas: servants in the palaces of Troy and Ithaka and Carthage.  Ominous, understated, doomladen... Adèle can take an old story, tweak it, shake it inside out like a worn shirt, and – voilà – create a brand new garment.  I love her books and perhaps especially her trilogy ‘Happy Ever After’ – a wonderfully fresh and unusual version of three classic fairytales, placed in a mid-twentieth century setting and seamlessly merging fantasy with realism.

Picture credits

Hansel and Gretel by Alexander Zick 1845 - 1907

The cottage of cake - Kay Nielsen 1925
The witch's cottage - Ludwig Richter 1903
 Hansel and Gretel by Jennie Harbour, 1920

Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Cormorants of Andvær, by Jonas Lie

It's summertime... so here from the archives is a wonderfully eerie summer fairy tale by the 19th century Norwegian writer Jonas LieLie was a contemporary of Ibsen, born 1833 at Hvokksund, not far from Oslo; but he spent much of his childhood at Tromsø, inside the Arctic Circle.  He was sent to naval college, but poor eyesight made him unsuited for a life at sea, so he became a lawyer and began to write and publish poems and novels which reflected Norwegian life, folklore and nationalism. 

I haven't been able to find any of Lie’s novels: most don’t seem to have been translated into English.  But I do have a collection of his reworkings of Norwegian and Finnish legends about the sea.  It’s called 'Weird Tales from Northern Seas'.  My edition was published in English in 1893 and consists of eleven short stories cherry-picked from a volume called ‘Trold’- 'Trolls' - and another called 'Fortaellinger og Skildringer ', which means something like 'Tales and Depictions, or 'Stories and Portrayals' (translations courtesy of the Bookwitch).  How I wish I could read the others.
I do not know how close these stories are to original folk-tales, though some strike me as very close in spirit.  Even in translation I find them powerful and beautiful, marvellously told.  I was reading this collection while writing the second of my ‘Troll’ books: one of his stories, ‘The Fisherman and the Draug’, was part of the inspiration for the malevolent ghosts which haunt the fisherman Bjørn in my own book. The one I want to share today is called ‘The Cormorants of Andvær’ – eldritch, mournful and beautiful. Tell me what you think of it, how it affects you. I am sure it will affect you. It’s such a strange tale…

The Cormorants of Andvær

Outside Andvær lies an island, the haunt of wild birds, which no man can land upon, be the sea never so quiet; the sea swell girds it round about with sucking whirlpools and dashing breakers.

On fine summer days something sparkles there through the sea-foam like a large gold ring; and, time out of mind, folks have fancied there was a treasure there left by some pirates of old.

At sunset, sometimes, there looms forth from thence a vessel with a castle astern, and a glimpse is caught now and then of an old-fashioned galley.  There it lies as if in a tempest, and carves its way along through heavy white rollers.

Along the rocks sit the cormorants in a long black row, in wait for dog-fish.

But there was a time when one knew the exact number of these birds.  There was never more nor less of them than twelve, while upon a stone, out in the sea mist, sat the thirteenth, but it was only visible when it rose and flew right over the island.

The only persons who live near the Vær at winter time, long after the fishing season was over, was a woman and a slip of a girl.  Their business was to guard the scaffolding poles for drying fish against the birds of prey, who had such a villainous trick of hacking at the drying-ropes.

The young girl had thick coal-black hair, and a pair of eyes that peeped at folk so oddly. One might almost have said that she was like the cormorants outside there, and she had never seen much else all her life.  Nobody knew who her father was.

Thus they lived till the girl had grown up.

It was found that, in the summer time, when the fishermen went out to the Vær to fetch away the dried fish, that the young fellows began underbidding each other, so as to be selected for that special errand.

Some gave up their share of the profits, and others their wages, and there was a general complaint in all the villages round about that on such occasions no end of betrothals were broken off.

But the cause of it all was the girl out yonder with the odd eyes. For all her rough-and-ready ways, she had something about her, said those she chatted with, that there was no resisting. She turned the heads of all the young fellows; it seemed as it they couldn't live without her.

The first winter a lad wooed her who had both house and warehouse of his own.

“If you come again in the summertime, and give me the right gold ring I will be wedded by, something may come of it,” said she.

And sure enough, in the summertime the lad was there again.

He had a lot of fish to fetch away, and she might have had a gold ring as heavy and as bonnie as her heart could wish for.

“The ring I must have lies beneath the wreckage, in the iron chest, over at the island yonder,” said she; “that is, if you love me enough to dare fetch it.”

But then the lad grew pale.

He saw the sea-bore rise and fall out there like a white wall of foam on the bright summer day, and on the island sat the cormorants sleeping in the sunshine.

“Dearly do I love thee,” said he, “but such a quest as that would mean my burial, not my bridal.”

The same instant the thirteenth cormorant rose from his stone in the misty foam and flew right over the island.

Next winter the steersman of a yacht came a wooing.  For two years he had gone about and hugged his misery for her sake, and he got the same answer. 

“If you come again in the summer time and give me the right gold ring I will be wedded with, something may come of it.”

Out to the Vær he came again on Midsummer Day.

But when he heard where the gold ring lay, he sat and wept the whole day till evening, when the sun began to dance north-westward into the sea.

Then the thirteenth cormorant arose, and flew right over the island.

There was nasty weather during the third winter.  There were manifold wrecks, and on the keel of a boat, which came driving ashore, hung an exhausted young lad by his knife-belt.

But they couldn’t get the life back into him, roll and rub him about in the boathouse as they might. Then the girl came in.  “’Tis my bridegroom!” said she. And she laid him in her bosom, and sat with him the whole night through, and put warmth into his heart.

And when the morning came, his heart beat.  “Methought I lay betwixt the wings of a cormorant, and leaned my head against its downy breast,” said he.

The lad was ruddy and handsome, with curly hair, and he couldn’t take his eyes away from the girl.

He took work upon the Vær.  But off he must be, gadding and chatting with her, be it never so early and never so late. So it fared with him as it had fared with the others.

It seemed to him that he could not live without her, and on the day when he was bound to depart, he wooed her.

Thee I will not fool,” said she.  “Thou hast lain on my breast, and I would give my life to save thee from sorrow.  Thou shalt have me if thou wilt place the betrothal ring upon my finger; but longer than the day lasts thou canst not keep me.  And now I will wait, and long after thee with a horrible longing, till the summer comes.”

On Midsummer Day the youth came thither in his boat all alone. 

Then she told him of the ring that he must fetch for her from among the skerries.

“If thou hast taken me off the keel of a boat, thou mayest cast me forth yonder again,” said the lad.  “Live without thee I cannot.”

But as he laid hold of the oars in order to row out, she stepped into the boat with him and sat in the stern.  Wondrous fair was she!

It was beautiful summer weather, and there was a swell upon the sea: wave followed upon wave in long bright rollers.

The lad sat there, lost in the sight of her, and he rowed and rowed till the insucking breakers roared and thundered among the skerries; the groundswell was strong, and the frothing foam spurted up as high as towers.

“If thy life is dear to thee, turn back now,” said she.

“Thou art dearer to me than life itself,” he made answer.  But just as it seemed to the lad as if the prow were going under and the jaws of death were gaping wide before him, it grew all at once as still as a calm, and the boat could run ashore as if there was never a billow there.

On the island lay a rusty old ship’s anchor half out of the sea.

“In the iron chest which lies beneath the anchor is my dowry,” said she. “Carry it up into thy boat and put the ring which thou seest on my finger. With this thou dost make me thy bride. So now I am thine till the sun dances north-westwards into the sea.”

It was a gold ring with a red stone in it, and he put it on her finger and kissed her.

In a cleft on the skerry was a patch of green grass.  There they sat them down, and they were ministered to in wondrous wise, how he knew not nor cared to know, so great was his joy.

“Midsummer Day is beauteous,” said she, “and I am young and thou art my bridegroom.  And now we’ll to our bridal bed.”

So bonnie was she that he could not contain himself for love.

But when night drew nigh, and the sun began to dance out into the sea, she kissed him and shed tears.

“Beauteous is the summer day,” said she, “and still more beauteous is the summer evening; but now the dusk cometh.”

And all at once it seemed to him as if she were becoming older and older and fading right away.

When the sun went below the sea-margin there lay before him on the skerry some mouldering linen rags and nought else.

Calm was the sea, and in the clear Midsummer night there flew twelve cormorants out over the sea.

Picture credits:
'The Cormorants of Andvær' by Laurence Housman