Witch Week 2015: Top Ten Stories That Take the Old to the New (Guest Post)

Posted November 3, 2015 by Lory in guest posts, lists / 20 Comments

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

TopTenSQFor today’s post, I went to one of my favorite sources of Top Ten Tuesday lists, Susie from Girl with Her Head in a Book, to see whether she’d be up for doing one especially for Witch Week. I was so happy that she agreed to take on the challenge for her first-ever guest post! GWHHIAB’s lists are always full of surprising connections, interesting insights, and boundless enthusiasm, and this one is no exception. I hope you’ll find some old and new favorites in this list, which has something for everyone. Enjoy!

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So, this is my very first ever guest post and I am a tiny bit excited. When Lory explained about Witch Week and asked me to draw up a list of stories which made use of fairy tales and other traditional lore, my brain immediately went into overdrive and this is a mere edited summary of a list that could probably have hit three figures if I had not been very careful. Many stories hinge on the same structure and there are many novels which are the clear offspring of more primeval forebears. We have been telling and retelling each other the same stories since the beginning of time; what is interesting is how the methods we use have changed over the centuries.

The Harry Potter Chronicles, JK Rowling

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While many have criticised this series as a derivative British boarding school adventure (particular parallels being drawn to The Worst Witch), I would argue that they are missing the point. JK Rowling takes the core grammar of fairy-tales and makes them her own. The magical universe of witches, wizards, spells and magical creatures is harnessed in a structure of rules and regulations. The older laws of folklore are disregarded by the foolish at their peril — we see this as Umbridge decries the centaurs as ‘filthy half-breeds’ and thus is abducted by them, but more particularly when You-Know-Who’s lack of heed to the old rules brings about his downfall. Rowling’s collection The Tales of Beedle the Bard makes use of the fairy tale structure with similar adeptness — her prose may not have the fluidity of an Angela Carter, but one cannot doubt that Rowling speaks fairy-tale fluently. Image: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Cinderella – Ella Enchanted, Ella’s Big Chance

ella_cover_different  ellas chance

The Cinderella rags-to-riches story is one of the very, very oldest and but the figure of Cinderella is surprisingly fluid. Cloak-a-Rushes makes her the cast-out daughter of the King; in Mexico they call her Adelita, in Germany Ashputtel, but she is just a rose by another name. About ten to fifteen years ago, there was a trend for more assertive Cinderellas. In Ever After, Drew Barrymore played a version who read Utopia, befriended Leonardo Da Vinci and who only married the Dauphin when she was certain that he loved her. In Shirley Hughes’s Ella’s Big Chance, in the end Ella decided that she didn’t know the prince very well and that she’d rather marry Buttons whom she’d known all her life and knew would be a good match. My personal favourite is Ella Enchanted (don’t watch the film, though, it’s dire), which has a heroine who bounds onto the page, most likely tripping over her own feet. Bound by a childhood curse which has forced her to be obedient, Ella is determined to overcome it by any means necessary. More recent adaptations seem to indicate a downturn, however, with Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella displaying a return to the more inert portrayals. I am not sure what this means, except perhaps that fashions change, but I know which version I would most wish to pass on to the next generation.

Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey/Dark Fairy Tales

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I know. It’s awful. But for a list like this, it is impossible to ignore the rise of the Dark Fairy Tale. You can spot them a mile away — their covers are black with a single brightly-coloured object in the centre which somehow symbolises the monstrosity behind the myth. These are generally ‘low-fantasy’ books, meaning that magic is not supposed to exist, with an ingenue heroine who gets to be all startled by the goings-on. The insipid Bella Swann is a good example of this; another is Amanda Seyfried playing Red Riding Hood. Being the lead in a dark fairy tale involves being pale, wearing a lot of lip gloss, and gawping a lot in terror. Still, the original Grimm Fairy Tale version of Red Riding Hood is also pretty shocking in its implied eroticism, with the Wolf getting the child into bed — there are a lot of theories that the myth of Red Riding Hood itself is about the loss of virginity. This links in to Fifty Shades of Grey, with Christian Grey being a fairly creepy version of the Big Bad Wolf — but he is so insanely wealthy that the heroine allows herself to be swept off her feet. For all that Anastasia may repeatedly claim that she is not swayed by the expensive books, the helicopter and the designer clothes, it is obvious that E L James expects the reader to be impressed. Forget a pumpkin coach — this man can buy a fancy car. Never mind glass slippers, this guy can get you Louboutins. Forget the gentleman bringing the lady Milk Tray, Christian Grey just buys her an iPad. The obvious materialism of this is depressing, but it does represent the rising consumerist obsession of our society. We want our fairy tales with better stuff and we don’t want to have to pay for it ourselves.

Discworld, Terry Pratchett

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I have mourned few authors in the way in which I mourned Terry Pratchett. I loved Discworld, this anarchic interpretation of a post-Industrial-Revolution Fairyland. Although the series followed a broad continuity, it was easy enough to dip in and out and each of the books tended to satirise and skewer something slightly different. Dwarves and trolls are locked in a sectarian-style conflict, vampires attempt to rehabilitate and overcome their addiction and over in Lancre, there is Granny Weatherwax using headology to keep things running. Pratchett always has a healthy respect for the risks of magic — the wizarding Archchancellors of the Unseen University have a high mortality rate in early volumes, with the institution’s librarian being turned into an orang-utan. In Lords and Ladies, we meet the deadly elves, but it is the way that Pratchett balances their menace with humour that shows what a skillful storyteller he truly was.  And I always remember how he explains that country folk put horseshoes over the doorway because those tended to be handy pieces of iron that they were likely to have hanging around, and somewhere deep down they remembered that iron repelled elves. There is a kind of practicality to Pratchett’s writing that brings the traditions of fairy tales down to earth — such as in The Wee Free Men, when Tiffany Aching reads that the monster that has abducted her younger brother has ‘eyes the size of soup-plates.’  Recognising that this is of little help, Tiffany goes home, gets a tape measure and finds a soup plate, and then has an actual idea of what she is dealing with. An excellent attitude to have, given that she is introduced shortly afterwards to the Nac Mac Feegle, a race of Scottish pixies thrown out of Fairyland for being Drunk and Disorderly. Throughout the series, Pratchett displays little sympathy for those of a poetic or artistic disposition — Agnes Nitt never does get to be Perdita Dream — but he does let his characters learn Useful Lessons, perhaps the greatest fable tradition of all. Image: Yenefer

The Peter Grant Adventures, Ben Aaronovitch

peter grantI still feel as though ridiculously few people have read the Peter Grant books.  Starting with Rivers of London, they move on to Moon Over Soho, then Whispers Undergound and Broken Homes. Last year saw the release of Foxglove Summer, with The Hanging Tree coming up next year. Peter Grant was a bog-standard trainee police officer when he happened to be accosted by a ghost while guarding a murder scene. With his only other career option being the Case Progression Unit (paperwork and nothing but), Peter reluctantly agrees to join the occult division of the Met, headed by Inspector Nightingale (a.k.a. Merlin/Gandalf/Dumbledore, except that something’s going on that means he’s aging in reverse, nobody is sure why but Nightingale is not complaining). The beauty of the series is how standard police jargon is applied to magical matters. Having been fully-trained in political correctness, Peter winces at the term ‘black wizard,’ preferring instead ‘ethically-challenged,’ and he is fully committed to ‘engaging with the stake-holders’ of the magical community, as well as dealing with the turf wars between Mother Thames and Father Thames (unrelated entities, hence the issue). Nightingale and Peter have the classic bleary-eyed cynicism of law enforcement, except their cases involve children abducted by the Faerie Queen, or the on-going calamity of the Faceless Man. One part I particularly enjoy is how Peter’s Sierra Leonean mother is so much prouder of her wizard-fighting son than she ever would have been when he was a mere policeman. Like Harry Potter, this book roots itself in our world, but applies twenty-first-century attitudes to ancient stories to superb effect. Image: Ben Aaronovitch

Which Witch?, Eva Ibbotson

which-witch-978144726574001I read this as a child and adored it — I also loved The Secret of Platform 13 and The Great Ghost Rescue, but this one has to be number one. Arriman’s parents looked at their baby and saw that he was different.  So his father very sensibly went to the library, looked up his symptoms and came up with a diagnosis — wizard.  And a dark one at that. So they named him Arriman and encouraged him to be the best kind of dark wizard that it was possible to be. When the time comes for Arriman to select a wife, he decides to hold an evil magic contest of the witches in his local area, who are not a particularly prepossessing group. My personal favourite is Mother Bloodworth, who is rather elderly and finds doing magic taxing, so her continued attempts to cast a spell to make herself young again have the distressing side-effect of repeatedly transforming her into a coffee table. I love the inversion of a group of women competing for a man’s hand rather than vice versa, and the supporting characters are superb.

The Borrowers and The Little Grey Men

borrowers  little grey men

One of my favourite fairy tales was that of the Elves and the Shoemaker. I loved the details about the little clothes that the Shoemaker’s wife made for the Elves — it is a very gentle use of the myth that arming any of these magical creatures with clothes will set them free, another old myth that JK Rowling makes use of. It is that urge to examine our world on a micro level that makes both Mary Norton’s Borrowers series and BB’s The Little Grey Men so much fun — and I could not choose between them. Neither series is rooted in a world that is inherently magical, indeed they are both recognisably dominated by humans. Mary Norton specifies that she had attempted to remain in the bounds of realism in her writing — even Pod’s balloon is designed to work properly. The fascination for me was always the idea of viewing life on a micro level, of tiny people who plunder dolls-houses for their chinaware, for whom mice are deadly predators and whose habitat is always under threat from those giants who are incapable of understanding them. The metaphor is heavy-handed (protect the planet!) but no less beautifully delivered.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

book-of-lost-things-uk-225I almost put this one in the dark fairy tales but I feel that there is more to it than that. The Book of Lost Things embraces all that is dark and deadly about fairy tales along with a hefty helping of nastiness from the land of Men. David is an angry child, bitter at his mother’s death and father’s immediate remarriage — David is promised a kingdom by the Crooked Man if he will only give up his half brother George, or else he must find the current King Jonathan’s Book of Lost Things so he can go home. Like the musical Into the Woods and Kate Danley’s The Woodcutter, here fairyland reflects the darkness within our own imaginations, our fears given flesh and teeth. David is disgusted by how his father’s sexual appetite let him to betray David’s mother, and his revulsion for womankind is played out in the land he is taken to.  Sexuality is a frequent theme in fairytales, for all that they are supposedly designed for children. The magical realm is a place for broken things and broken people — be careful where you step, because anything could be out there in the wood.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Erin-Morgenstern-The-Night-CircusThis novel went viral a few years ago and publishers have been seeking to replicate its success ever since.  I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve seen with stickers or quotes beside them saying that they are ‘perfect for fans of The Night Circus.’  I feel a certain degree of cynicism about books being marketed on the merits of others, but I understand the urge to return to the Circus’s very particular glamour.  The circus is a fantastical realm, constructed to play out the contest between Marcus and Celia — a highly original wizarding duel. But the plot is secondary to the evocative descriptions of the luxurious delights available should the Circus des Reves ever head your way. It reminds me of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” of the rooms upon rooms of magical beauty, all of which can be only sampled sparingly. One never knows when the spell may be struck asunder, sending us back to a world which will always seem the greyer once we have glimpsed bright colour.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

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​I truly believe that Neil Gaiman is the one-man Brothers Grimm for our age.  Like JK Rowling, he masters the fairy tale format with flair and fluency, but his prose is also startling in its perfection. I have come to his work only gradually and feel slightly late to the party.  What always impresses me is how he consistently brings a fresh perspective to old stories — his “The Problem of Susan” tackled the uncomfortable fate of Susan Pevensie, Anansi Boys breathed new life into the Anansi mythology, and more recently he wrote The Sleeper and the Spindle. My personal favourite remains The Ocean at the End of the Lane which in my view is as near to perfect as a novel can get. The Man is discontented and by chance finds himself in the area in which he grew up, so he looks for the pond which his childhood friend swore was an ocean. As the story unfolds, we are treated to an unearthly tale — but is it what truly happened? There are several points when the Man acknowledges that there are other interpretations. Which takes us to the reason why people first began to tell each other stories in the first place — to better understand our humanity. Gaiman understands not only the grammar of fantasy but also what motivates it — fans of the fairy tale would do well to follow him.

Once again, a great big thank you to Lory for letting me participate — I have had so much fun drawing up the list.  There were many very worthy contenders which did not make the cut but I would urge you to remember that fairy tales are worth reading well beyond the bounds of childhood — they contain so many truths about our own nature, and the differing ways we tell them tells us a lot about ourselves as well.

Girl with her Head in a Book is from the UK and tends to panic if she only has one book in her handbag. Currently living in Oxford, she’s a Northerner at heart and likes knitting, Jane Austen and Granny Smith apples. Add a cup of tea and you’ve got yourself an ideal afternoon in. Her site features listography, reviews and general book-themed tomfoolery. Visitors are always welcomed warmly.

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20 responses to “Witch Week 2015: Top Ten Stories That Take the Old to the New (Guest Post)

  1. A satisfying trawl through the ocean of fairytale retellings, some familiar (if only by reputation) and some not so familiar. The strength of fairytales is that they tap into our store of common narratives and recognisable motifs, and fairytale retellings — while not necessarily using traditional magic (overt or otherwise) or the pacing and language of traditional tales — are easily assimilated to the tropes and trappings of our modern age and outlook.

    I can’t wait to visit or even revisit some of these titles Susie has highlighted for us.

  2. Although I am not a Potter fan, I have read and enjoyed each of the other books.
    I belong to a FB group The Glass Slipper Sisters, who do alternative writings about Cinderella.

  3. Welcome, Susie! What a wonderful post. I particularly love what you say about Harry Potter and the way it’s informed by the grammar of fairy tales. So, so true.

    (Have you read The Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones? It informs a lot of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, in my opinion. Both wonderful books.)

    • When I reread The Pinhoe Egg not long ago it also reminded me of “Ocean,” with the parts about walking the boundaries between the worlds.

  4. A lovely list, and very insightful commentary! I’ve read many of these, but I will have to check out the Peter Grant books at some point, and Which Witch and Pratchett as well. (I’ve read one Pratchett, but need to read more.)

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