Here’s another reason for writers to like fairy stories.

This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.

Ladybird puss in boots

I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful.  Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.

One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles.  Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.

The decision was agony.  Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.

So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses?  Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head.  Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version.  Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.

A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.

…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.

Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book.  Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.

Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good.  Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.

Ladybird puss in boots.jpg 2Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me.  What was the message?  Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.

‘Merrrrrrrrrrrci!’

The machinations of Puss are not unique.  Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side.  What might they say, given an opportunity?  You tell me.

A. S. Byatt demonstrates the art of short story writing

The Story of the Eldest Princess, by A.S. Byatt is a fairytale.  Because the genre has been so successfully packaged for children for the past three hundred years, it is often forgotten that the original audience for these oral tales would have included adults, and that the tellers would have adapted their material to suit the circumstances of their listeners.

Yet writers have not forgotten.  Many of our best-loved fictions have fairytale characters and situations embedded in them.  Some are easily recognised, many are artfully reworked.

Occasionally writers celebrate the form openly.  Apart from their entertainment value, these stories provide us with an opportunity to study the craft.  Comparing and contrasting the approaches helps us expand our understanding of the endless writing possibilities.

DSCF4470 bSo, in this story A.S. Byatt  tells of what happens when the sky turns from the usual blues to a variety of shades of green.

In the early days the people stood in the streets and fields with their moths open, and said oh, and ah, in tones of admiration and wonder.

After a while though the novelty wears off, and the population look for someone to blame.  The buck stops, of course, with the King and Queen.  They consult with various minions, both ministers and witches and wizards, until finally someone thinks up a Quest.  Since it ‘was a positive action, which would please the people, and not disrupt the state’ that’s the solution they settle for.  The second princess volunteers, but:

The King said he thought it should be done in an orderly manner, and he rather believed the eldest Princess should go, since she was the first…Quite why that mattered so much, no one knew, but it seemed to, and the eldest Princess said she was quite happy to set out that day, if that was what the council believed was the right thing to do.

So she set out.  They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

At this point, the princess pauses, and does what all the best adventurous heroes in fairytales do, considers her situation.

 She began to think.  She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess.  This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests.  What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.

She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.

She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

We, of course, are by nature reading writers, which means that we too have read a great many stories, hopefully many of them in the fairy genre, and so we too recognise this pattern.  This, we realize, is the moment when the narrative may break away from expectations, so that the questions of what, why and how can be freshened up.

Hmm, interesting, isn’t it?