A Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

There is a special kind of emptiness in a marriage, when both the partners long for a child without success. Their private moments change from solitude to loneliness: intimate chatter degenerates into monosyllables before ultimately descending into dark silence. The carefree laughter of a child, the picture of a smiling cherubic face, or the pitter-patter of small feet on the road all become exquisite torture – reminders of some esoteric happiness forever out of reach.

I know… I have been there.

It must be (at least in part) to tackle this anxiety creatively that fairy-tales use the trope of the childless couple quite frequently. The story is quite formulaic: there will be an old couple (mostly on the edge of a wood) who would have been longing for a child without success for ages. Finally out of desperation, the woman (or in some cases, both the partners together) would fashion a child’s likeness out of some unlikely object such as wood or mud, treat it like a human child for one night, and – hey presto! – it would become human overnight. The overjoyed couple would raise it as their own, but the story would usually end badly, with the breaking of some taboo resulting in the child going away.

“Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden) is a Russian fairy tale where the child is fashioned out of snow by a childless woodcutter and his wife, and subsequently brought to life by Father Frost, the spirit of the winter, who takes pity on them. The snow maiden lives with her foster parents quite happily until she falls for a human boy against the express admonitions of Father Frost – the warmth inside melts her, and she fades away bringing spring to the countryside in the process.

From myths.e2bn.org:
sneg-teachAs the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.

As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.

But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.

But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
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Eowyn Ivey has taken this bittersweet story, transplanted it to the rural Alaska of 1920’s, and woven a tale which is every bit as magical as the original. Her protagonists are Mabel and Jack, who are trying to make a living on their farm, fighting against the unforgiving climate as well as life, which has given them only the memory of a stillborn child to live on. The couple are slowly moving apart, and Mabel is on the verge of suicide when, in one blustery night of mad gaiety they a fashion a girl out of snow in front of their cabin. Next day, the child is gone – and a wild girl starts visiting them, clandestinely at first, then more and more openly.

The girl, Faina, is more or less adopted by the couple soon. Their close friends George and Esther initially consider the unseen girl as a hallucination conjured up by Mabel, but after the initial shock of meeting her in person, comes to accept her as she is. Their youngest son, Garrett, a boy of the forest himself is initially antagonistic. Well, as so often happens, antagonism changes to fascination, mutual attraction and love… and the story moves towards its expected climax (and no, this is not a spoiler!).

The beauty of this novel is that it does not follow the trope of the fairy tale blindly. Faina (the child) has a mysterious past as the daughter of an eccentric trapper who died in the forest. She lives off the wild, hunting and eating animals in a strangely feral manner. It is left to us to decide whether Faina is real or a phantasm. While such a style could easily become contrived, Ivey walks the tightrope expertly. There are times when we feel that the novelist is slipping into the realms of fantasy, but every time she pulls back just in time.

Contrasted with Faina are Mabel and Jack, who are very real. Mabel, with her cultured upbringing and artistic tendencies, is the bridge that links the gritty and unromantic world of rural America to the poesy of the snowy slopes of the far north. In fact, the story is almost self-referential in the sense that Mabel owns a book telling the story of the snow maiden, which her father (a literature professor) used to read to her: however, she learns as an adult that he only pretended to read, because the tale is in Russian! Only the pictures make sense, including the terrifying last one of the melted maiden.

We follow the characters with bated breath as they move along their pre-ordained paths – but the end, when it comes, is refreshingly different from yet absolutely faithful to the original. I will leave it at that.

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From myths.e2bn.org:
vasnetsov-snegurochka-teach

In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.

Birth, death, rebirth – these are the themes of ageless tales. There are no full stops in life, but an endless cycle of seasons through which we eke out our existence – brief candles, whose flames are ephemeral yet eternal at some level.

(All images courtesy myths.e2bn.org)

The Realm of Faerie

And you love take my right hand,

Come join the faery folks’ last dance;

Then we’ll sleep and dream of Elfland,

Her wizardry and wild romance.

Wheldrake,

The Elvish Rune,

1877

 

I am currently going through the Harry Potter series (yes, I know I’m terribly late!) and I have been marvelling at J. K. Rowling’s mastery in the mixing of the traditional British school story and Celtic fairy-lore. For kids of my generation who grew up on Enid Blyton, fairy-folk like pixies and brownies were childhood playmates; there was something fascinating about the enchanted woods just over the hedge, populated by these fascinating creatures. Blyton purposefully avoided the disturbing and frightening aspects of these creatures, and they were transformed into something like mischievous little children with magical powers. The illustrations also helped.

Running in parallel to these stories were narratives of a different kind of woodland beings. These inhabited not the calm and peaceful copses of temperate England, but the shadowy forests of tropical Kerala. Consequently I think, they were more frightening and violent. The Yakshi who enticed you in the form of a beautiful lady, only to eat you up; the Gandharvan who bewitched young ladies with beautiful music; the Thendan who followed you on dark, deserted paths and hit you if you looked back… What separated these stories from Enid Blyton’s tales were the fact that they were real, in the here and the now. These beings inhabited your backyard.

As I grew up, these magical beings were relegated to the attic of my mind; stowed away, but never discarded and never entirely forgotten. I had more pressing concerns now like studies and the angst of growing up (partial differential equations were more terrifying than any Yakshi). However, my yearning for magical lands and fantastic beings survived in the form of a deep love of fantasy and science fiction, and a growing interest in mythology. And when I discovered Joseph Campbell, it was as though a kindred spirit was calling to me across the ages. I understood that mythology is not just beautiful stories: it is an integral part of our psyche.

The faerie folk lives within us.

***

I found this entry on “fairy” in The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Once they were divine; the TUATHA DE DANANN, the children or the people of the goddess DANU. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the BOOK OF INVASIONS, the Tuatha De were the penultimate invaders of the island, wresting control from the sturdy dark FIR BOLG and the fierce FOMORIANS. When the final invaders came, the Tuatha De went the way of their enemies, being defeated in the great battle of TAILTIU by the Sons of Mil or MILESIANS.

The Milesians did not evict the defeated race from Ireland; instead, a deal was made that the Tuatha De would take the underside of the world while the Milesians ruled the surface. Through this curious treaty the ancient race remained within the hills, under the bogs, and in other liminal areas of Ireland, where they transformed into fairy people. Sometimes the story of their fall from power was connected to the Christian story of the angels’ fall from heaven, and the fairies were thus described as fallen angels.

One can immediately see the similarity to theory that the Asuras and Rakshasas of Indian myth were actually earlier inhabitants of India, vanquished by the invading Aryans. Similarly, the Devil is nothing but a fallen angel. So it seems that the protagonists of myth are always the beings of light who dwell on the surface; the antagonists, the beings of darkness beneath. Traditionally, according to the historical analysis of myth, the winners are thought to have written history with themselves as the gods and the conquered race as demons.

In my opinion, even though there may be some historical background to these legends, the roots run much deeper – all the way down into our subconscious.

Note that in ancient myths, even though the gods win, the demons are never fully vanquished. They only retreat temporarily, to come back with renewed vigour. In the same vein, the fairies have retreated to the “underside” – they dwell there in an uneasy truce with the ordinary beings “on the surface”. However, one has to be very careful never to cross into the no-man’s land, the twilight zone between the worlds. There are bloodcurdling tales.

Kidnappings by fairies are quite common: they steal the souls of brides, who waste away in real life, while the soul is made to spend its time continuously dancing in the fairy kingdom (a legend used to great effect by Susanna Clarke in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel). There is also the terrifying story of the changeling, the fairy child swapped with a human child – a common trope in many fantasy and horror stories. There is the irritating goblin who can turn outright malevolent on occasion. There are also helpful fairies like the brownies and mischievous spirits like the pixies – the so-called little people – who also may turn nasty if not properly treated.

Back home in Kerala, the legends are even more blood-curdling. The Yakshi waylays unsuspecting males in the guise of a nubile young girl and entices them up the palm tree where she lives; for the unfortunate soul, it seems like he is entering a palatial mansion. As soon as the light goes off, the ogress changes back into her terrifying form and eats the would-be Romeo up. The Thendan follows you on deserted pathways; if you turn to look at him, he gives you such a slap that you fall down unconscious. If you are lucky, you will wake up with a fever. The Gandharvan is handsome and sings beautifully so that girls are easy meat for him – however, once a girl is in a Gandharvan‘s clutches, woe betide any male who goes near her.

Sarpakkavu (image courtesy: http://www.karmakerala.com)

Many of the houses in rural Kerala used to have what is called a Sarpakkavu (“Snake Grove”). This is a wooded area on the grounds which is set aside for the divine snakes, who partakes of offerings and drinks milk left for them. They are the protectors of the family; but if you cross them, the whole dynasty will be cursed, especially the children.

Most our temples in Kerala still have “gods” who cannot be accommodated inside, as their character is not wholly beyond reproach. They are accommodated outside under the banyan tree (which is a standard fixture for any temple) or at the back of the temple. The Thendan I mentioned earlier sits under the banyan tree of our local temple – I can still remember the twinge of fear as I used to pass its idol in the night. (By the way, my wife’s family house had four gods in the backyard until recently – so the concept is still not dated!)

The feeling one gets from these legends are of a world in an uneasy balance. Unlike Christian mythology, where God is unconditionally good and the Devil incorrigibly Evil, the faerie folk are somewhere in-between – like us humans. They have been pushed “beneath”, but they can come up any time and drag us down if we are not careful.

***

Humanity started out in the jungles: the race memories of a dark and frightening past hide inside the collective unconscious and still haunt us. These are what Joe Campbell calls the “Inherited Image” – like the image of the hawk that the chickens will run away from, even when they have never seen a hawk in life. These are the symbols which lie deep inside the psyche and provide fodder for much of our art, literature and myth.

And the prevalence of the faerie folk inside the enchanted forests all over the globe assures us that underneath we are all the same.

A Review of “Snow White, Blood Red” by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow

[M]ost fairy tales were never initially intended for nursery duty. They have been put there, as J. R. R. Tolkien so evocatively expressed it, like old furniture fallen out of fashion that the grown-ups no longer want. And like furniture banished to the children’s playroom, the tales that have been banished from the mainstream of modern adult literature have suffered misuse as well as neglect.

Terri Windling

Many adults dismiss fairy tales as being too childish, too sweet and innocent, but fairy tales are far from that. The ones that touch us most deeply are often blunt about the darker side of human nature, filled with violence and atrocities…

– Ellen Datlow

IT WAS the middle of winter, and the snow-flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a Queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Not very long after she had a daughter, with a skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, and she was named Snow-white. And when she was born the Queen died.

  • “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, collected by the Brothers Grimm

For me, the above paragraph represents the quintessence of fairy tales: the purity of white versus the feral beauty of red, and blackness that hides just beneath. Because fairy tales are not the “sanitized” stories which we have read in comic books and children’s collections; they are far removed from the bowdlerised fantasies presented by Disney. Fairy tales are primal: they are frightening: they talk of taboo subjects like childhood sexuality, cannibalism, mutilation and the link between pain and pleasure. Blood features in them as prominently as snow – because fairy tales are not meant for children, but adults.

My first experience with the serious analysis of fairy tales was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment; I considered that the definitive work in the field. Now, however, I am better informed. There are a lot of dissenting views from that of Bettelheim (see the SurLaLune website for one example). Ellen Datlow, one of the editors of the book under discussion, says (in disagreement to Bettelheim’s specifications as to what a fairy tale ought to be): “We ought not underrate the subtlety of fairy tales, for their power emerges from the lack of a single, unique ‘meaning’ in each tale. Every listener finds within it something different and personal. Perhaps we must let fairy tales define themselves through the infinite variety of commonalities among them.”

It is to Bettelheim’s contention that a fairy tale must necessarily end happily that Datlow makes the above reply. She confesses herself to be an admirer of the disturbing and distressing aspects of fairy tales. Terri Windling is also of the opinion that fairy tales cannot be limited to saccharine tales for kids: “One significant result of the bowdlerization of the old stories is that the term fairy tale, like the word myth, can be used, in modern parlance, to mean a lie or an untruth. A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder. It speaks of these things in a symbolic language that slips into our dreams, our unconscious, steeped in rich archetypal images. The deceptively simple language of fairy tales is a poetry distilled from the words of centuries of storytellers, timeworn, polished, honed by each successive generation discovering the tales anew.”

This collection is yet another instance of that new discovery. Windling and Datlow have collected tales from a fair cross-section of today’s foremost fantasy authors – most of them retelling old favourites in new light. It is a testament to the strength and endurance of these stories that one can still discover new angles. You will come across many old favourites such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel as you travel through these pages: also many of the lesser known characters will make their appearance. However, whatever be the story, there is always the lofty white sky of fantasy above and the blood red earth of horror below; and the guilty pleasure of sex in the hidden crannies and crevices. As the editors say:

It is this interplay of light and shadow that we have sought to explore in creating this collection of stories, combining the Snow White of “high” fantasy fiction with the Blood Red of horror fiction. Some of the stories contained herein fall easily into one or another of these camps; others choose instead to tread the mysterious, enchanted path between the two—both bright and dark, wondrous and disturbing, newly fashioned and old as Time.

***

As with any collection of stories, this one too, is a mixed bag. I found some really excellent ones here, along with some indifferent fare: to be fair, none of the offerings are very bad. The authors have been faithful to the cause – these are indeed fairy tale retellings (except for the first story – “Like a Red, Red Rose” by Susan Wade – which is a sort of “meta-fairy-tale” combining many motifs). The emphasis is on an alternate point of view, or a subtle (or not-so-subtle, as in the case of “Little Poucet” by Steve Rasnic Tem) enhancement of dark sexuality or horror (“I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood” by Kathe Koja). The editors provide a brief introduction to each story which allows the reader to understand which fairy tale is being retold. This helps a lot with the less familiar ones, as Charles de Lint’s retelling of The Dead Moon (the story “The Moon is Drowning While I Sleep”).

To enumerate a few: there are two retellings of Rapunzel, one in tragic vein and one in comic; two of Little Red Riding Hood, one highlighting the traditional sexual angle of the story and the other, the horrific but with a twist. There is the Frog Prince on a psychiatrist’s couch and Thumbelina. There are Andersen’s Wild Swans on a baseball field, a vampiric Puss-in-Boots (“Puss” by Esther M. Freisner, where the hero of the original story is turned into a despicable villain), a licentious Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) and the Snow Queen.

The stories which stood from the rest (for me) were:

  1. “Troll Bridge” by Neil Gaiman: A retelling of the “Three Billie Goats Gruff”, the tale is given a twist in the way only Gaiman can do it. It is a fantasy, and at the same time a statement of the human condition.
  2. “Snow-Drop” by Tanith Lee: Here, in a futuristic SF-fantasy setting, the grim story of death and sex between the evil queen and the innocent girl is played out. However, the queen is not so evil, and the girl is not so innocent. This new take on Snow White fascinated me.
  3. “Like Angels Singing” by Leonard Rysdyk: The POV (Point of View) is the thing. This story is a striking example of how a turning of the camera changes the movie. Very powerful.
  4. “The Changelings” by Melanie Tem: The myth of the changeling is ever present in Europe, where fairies steal away one’s human child and put one of their own in its place. This legend has always creeped me out, and so does this story.

However, if I am asked to award the crown for the best story in the collection, it will go to the last one: “Breadcrumbs and Stones” by Lisa Goldstein. This is not a fantasy, but the brutal reality of one of the darkest periods of human history – the Nazi regime. It is the story of a survivor, and her terrible loss: what Hansel and Gretel could have been without the magical elements. This story left me with a lump in my throat, and I understood how Bruno Bettelheim could survive a concentration camp on the strength of fairy tales. The last paragraph of the story captures it all:

It seemed to me that all my life my mother had given me the wrong story, her made-up tales instead of Hansel and Gretel, had given me breadcrumbs instead of stones. That she had done this on purpose, told me the gaudiest, most wonder-filled lies she knew, so that I would not ask for anything more and stumble on her secret. It was too late now—I would have to find my own way back. But the path did not look at all familiar.

Yes, we do need those breadcrumbs, so that we are never lost in the woods.

A review of “Italian Folktales” by Italo Calvino

There is an endless fascination to fairy and folk tales.  As a child, I remember listening to them at my great-aunt’s knee: she was a great storyteller, and often embellished and modified tales, so that cruel and sad parts were left out.  The same tales were restored to their original form when told by my mother, who was adamant that a child should not be shielded from cruelties and horror.  Needless to say, I preferred my great-aunt.

Later on, I came to read and love the Classics Junior series of comics (sadly out of print now, alas) which introduced me to the Brothers Grimm (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast et al), and I was hooked for life on the magic of fairy tales, and the world of make-believe and fantasy.  My fascination only increased when I discovered that underneath the beauty there lay a morass of dark desires and fears, and these tales are only the tips of the icebergs of darkest human nature.

So when I was able to grab Italo Calvino’s famous compendium of Italian folktales at relatively reasonable price, I was ecstatic.  And the famous novelist did not let me down: here is a collection, neatly compiled and docketted, of stories collected from all over Italy.  Calvino provides informative footnotes to all tales, pointing out the similarities, sometimes giving detailed information on the teller (mostly old ladies) and pointing out the influence of Grimm and the later romantic legends.  In many an instance, he has combined different versions of the same story (adding his own poetic embellishments) to create what he deems the best version.

It would be a Herculean task to analyse the stories in detail: rather, I would like to give general impressions.

  • These pagan tales have been Christianised to a certain extent.  The devil makes frequent appearances, but usually behaves more like the inept ogre or giant of the traditional fairy tale than the arch-fiend.  There is especially a Lame Devil who is almost lovable in his bumbling inefficiency.
  • Even though God himself does not make an appearance, there are a number of stories where angels and saints play an active part.  There is a whole cycle of stories with Jesus and Peter playing the roles of the wise master and the foolish disciple.
  • Kings and queens are plentiful – they can be found in almost all neighbourhoods, living across the street from you.  And when the poor servant-girl is rescued by a prince or king, the kingdom is specifically mentioned (i.e. “King of Portugal”, “Prince of Spain” etc.).  I was surprised to find that the “King of India” makes his appearance in one story.
  • Some of these tales are romances, as pointed out by Calvino: for example, the tale of the Slave Mother, kidnapped by Turkish pirates.  It (and the Christian references) indicate that the stories have come some way from their pagan origins.

A very satisfying read overall.  Only a word of statutory caution:  weighing in at seven hundred and fifty plus pages and two hundred stories, this is a ponderous tome, best taken in small doses.  Reading at a stretch would tire one out and jade the palate due to a surfeit of magic and wizardry.