Witch Week 2015: Don’t Bet on the Prince (Guest Post)

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.

DontBetPrinceFor today’s Witch Week post, I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Chris from Calmgrove to offer his thoughts on a groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays, Don’t Bet on the Prince.

Nearly thirty years ago, the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences? Thanks to Chris for pointing us toward a book that can help us to remember these still-relevant questions.


Training Manuals

Jack Zipes, editor
Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement.”

Illustration by Walter Crane from King Thrushbeard. Source: SurLaLune Fairy Tales

Lieberman’s essay usefully underscores how literary fairy tales ended with a moral, either explicit or implicit. Virtue is rewarded, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next: and female virtues included passivity, patience and victimhood. Lieberman reminds us that in The Blue Fairy Book – as edited by Andrew Lang in 1889 – “most of the heroines are entirely passive, submissive, and helpless,” as for example is the Sleeping Beauty. She points out that “the system of rewards in fairy tales equates with these three factors: being beautiful, being chosen, and getting rich.” When the female protagonist achieves one or more of these goals life for her stops, as the rubric “lived happy ever after” indicates.

TransformationsSextonWhat feminist takes on these tales do is re-envisage ideas of attractiveness, passiveness and blatant gold-digging. Lieberman notes that it’s interesting that in these tales “powerful good women are nearly always fairies” (that is, non-human) whereas remote evil women are shown as “active, ambitious, strong-willed and, most often, ugly” – with the added vice of jealousy where the protagonist is concerned.

The sixteen pieces – mostly prose tales but with some powerful poetry by the likes of Anne Sexton – mostly date from the 70s and 80s, as do the four essays. There’s only space to mention a handful but all are rarely just subversive, for they strive to right the balance in favour of our common humanity by giving the female leads active, positive characters and roles. They don’t always end happily ever after either.

Michael de Larrabeiti’s ‘Malagan and the Lady of Rascas’ is not a straight retelling of any one classic tale, but points out the danger of males believing they ‘own’ their wives. Sorcery and the vagaries of war combine to ensure a baron’s wife never regains her beauty; but her innate goodness, belying the notion that beauty is only skin deep, eventually proves the redemption of much that she holds dear. As for the heroine being ‘chosen’ by her suitor, Jeanne Desy’s ‘The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet’ definitely subverts the traditional tale of ‘King Thrushbeard’ as well as being an implicit commentary on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (as Zipes points out). Finally, the cliché of the lead female being motivated solely by cupidity is shown the door in Jane Yolen’s poignant ‘The Moon Ribbon,’ a re-visioning of the Cinderella tale.

Forest Path
Into the woods…photo by Chris Lovegrove

Zipes’s own essay is an illuminating examination of how the Little Red Riding Hood theme subtly evolves in narration and book illustration, so it’s entirely appropriate that I mention in conclusion Tanith Lee’s ‘Wolfland.’ Here is a powerful telling of the young woman in the familiar depths of an eerie woodland infested with wolves, but here the resemblances end. The grandmother is not in fact the victim of the wolf but a werewolf, the young woman not the disobedient (and some might say willing) victim but heiress to a blood legacy. But then I could as equally mention any of the tales by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Meghan B Collins or Joanna Russ – or indeed by all the other writers – as worthy of note. In an era when, thankfully, the incidence of kickass heroines is proliferating it’s important to recognise some of the pioneering authors who paved the way.

And the moral? Ah, there’s always a moral. This one will do, from the end of ‘Malagan’: He who turns to evil will, at the end, find it turned against him. If not in the present, then at some future date. That would be very appropriate in a radically rewritten training manual for girls.

Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.”

New Release Review: CS Lewis and His Circle

Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan Wolfe, eds., CS Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford CS Lewis Society (2015)

CSLewisCircleClosely following The Fellowship, a splendid group biography of the Inklings, comes this new collection, a fine companion volume for those looking for more on CS Lewis and company. A student society founded in 1982 with the aim of grappling with “the rich relationship between Christianity, culture, and the imagination, including literature,” the Oxford CS Lewis Society has had hundreds of talks given under its aegis throughout the years. What a delight it must have been for an Oxford student sympathetic to these themes to be able to belong to this club and participate in its activities.

Much of the material produced for the club has never been published, but in this volume we are privileged to read a pithy but very rich and deep selection, encompassing essays on philosophy, theology, and literature in the first half, and memoirs of the Inklings in general and CS Lewis in particular in the second. Some highlights for me included Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, giving an appreciative reassessment of one of Lewis’s less popular novels, That Hideous Strength; Peter Bide’s memory of how he married Lewis and Joy Davidman, setting straight the record which has been rather sentimentalized and distorted by fictional treatments; and Owen Barfield himself, who outlived almost all his fellow Inklings, brilliantly analyzing his relationship with Lewis and teasing apart their intertwined opinions.

Each reader, however, will find his or her particular points of interest, whether in studies of the esoteric fiction of Charles Williams, considerations of the relationship of WH Auden to the Inklings, or personal reminiscences of Lewis and his family and friends. Framed by a Foreword and Afterword that put them into the context of the origin and history of the Society, these diverse contributions give a welcome taste of the many ways there are of encountering and understanding Lewis and the Inklings.



New Release Review: The Fellowship

Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015)


Love them or hate them — and there are large camps on both sides — it’s undeniable that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have had a huge impact on the imaginative landscape of the last century. Where did their tales of planetary travel, magical wardrobes, sinister rings, and elves, dwarves and hobbits come from? What were the sources of their Christian faith, and how was it expressed in their fiction and nonfiction? What do they still have to say to us in today’s post-modern, highly secular world?

To understand the Tolkien/Lewis phenomenon, it’s vital to see them in their context of friends, fellow academics, and colleagues, particularly the circle known as The Inklings, a semi-informal writers’ group that saw the genesis of many of their most important works. Two lesser-known members of the group, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, played crucial roles in its development, and particularly influenced Lewis as intellectual foils and sparring partners. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski explore the extraordinary creative ferment of the Inklings with zest, lucidity, and intelligence.

The Zaleskis are clearly in the friendly camp, but avoid idolizing their subjects excessively, bringing in some of their less savory sides while ultimately refraining from passing judgment. (Lewis lived for many years with a married older woman; the angelic Williams had a taste for sadism.) They adroitly juggle the stories of the four men and their overlapping paths toward Oxford, painting a fascinating picture of the flowering of a literary circle within the turbulent years of a world at war. Even in a book whose main section exceeds 500 pages, it’s not possible to exhaustively cover each life; some personal details are glossed over, the emphasis being on their “literary lives” as the subtitle states. But in general a fine balance is struck between the private and public sides of the Inklings, and much light is shed on the sources and reverberations of their work.

For any avid reader of any of these four writers, this is an essential and highly enjoyable book. Even those who disdain Lewis’s popular Christian apologetics or Tolkien’s Hobbit epic may, the Zaleskis hope, “come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.” That’s my hope, too, and my reason for continuing to hold these four writers as touchstones for my literary life.


New Release Review: How To Be a Heroine

Samantha Ellis, How To Be a Heroine (2015)

I remember well the day a friend casually said, upon seeing some book lying around at my place (I think it was The Hobbit), “I don’t read fiction.” Now, I understood of course that there were different tastes in the fictional realm, and that Tolkien was not everyone’s cup of tea. But to not read fiction at all? Just to write it off as boring and a waste of time? I knew there must be people like that out there, but they were usually more distant from me, belonging to foreign tribes of the soul, not friends that I would invite into my inner sanctum. I realized with dismay that I would have to cross a great divide to really understand such a person.

What a relief, then to open the pages of How To Be a Heroine and meet someone who decidedly belongs to my tribe. Samantha Ellis, a British playwright and journalist, reflects on her own life in terms of the books that defined and shaped her as she grew up, and particularly in terms of the heroines who showed her different ways to be a girl and then a woman. At a point in midlife when she is questioning where she is, how she got there and where she is going, rereading her favorites turns out to be more than just an exercise in nostalgia. We learn that fictional worlds don’t remain static, but can transform and show us new sides of ourselves as we gain experience and knowledge. Sometimes the results are disappointing, sometimes illuminating, but always fascinating in their revelation of the eternal enchantment of fiction.

As the child of Iraqi Jewish refugee parents, raised within an insular ethnic community, one could question what Ellis would find to relate to in the heroines of classic English literature: Elizabeth Bennett, Lucy Honeychurch, Anne of Green Gables. Happily, she shows us that in such much-loved and long-lasting works of fiction are to be found universal human concerns, which shine beneath the trappings of time and culture. To take but one example, the “marriage plot” is no less powerful in her own family, which expects her to marry a nice Iraqi Jew and keeps a tier of her Bat Mitzvah cake in the freezer for that day, than in Jane Austen’s society.

No literary snob, Ellis shows that there’s also wisdom to be gleaned from less elevated fare, such as The Valley of the Dolls, Lace, and the novels of Jilly Cooper. How has the very idea of what it means to be a woman changed over the last two hundred years? What can we learn from the trials and struggles of these characters, and of their writers? How have they fought to be recognized as human beings, as creators, as people with rights and feelings of their own? Written with passion and verve, How To Be a Heroine is a marvelous personal exploration of these questions, articulate, lucid, and never pretentious.

If I were to meet Samantha Ellis in person, we wouldn’t agree about everything. I would question her selection of the homicidal maniac Heathcliff as a romantic ideal, and she would wonder how I could find Beth March in Little Women anything other than disgustingly insipid. But we would definitely agree about one thing: reading fiction is one way, perhaps the most important way, that we have learned to create the story of our own lives. If you, too, look to books as touchstones of your life, and particularly to those inhabited by feisty, creative, and courageous heroines, then you will surely want to have the joy of revisiting them through this excellent consideration of all they have to offer.


A Reader’s Journey: My Life in Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)


criticism biography literature

Why aren’t there more books like this? Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones, Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insights into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.

Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.

An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into making a book that plays so many roles into a seamless whole.

If you’ve read and loved Middlemarch, or even if you haven’t, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book, which celebrates and brings greater understanding to our love of reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.


Top Ten Classics You Might Not Have Heard Of

Broke and Bookish meme

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is “Top Ten Classic Books,” or variations thereof. My favorite classic books don’t really need any more publicity from me (e.g. Great Expectations, Twelfth Night, Leaves of Grass), so I decided to make a list of classic books I love that aren’t so well-exposed. If you discover any of these marvelous under-the-radar reads through my list, I’ll be very pleased.

Elizabeth Gaskell novel classic

1. Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)
Though her star has been eclipsed by Victorian giants such as Dickens and Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell’s wise, compassionate novels very much hold up to scrutiny today. This, her final — and alas, unfinished — work of fiction, starts in fairy-tale fashion with a man who marries the wrong woman, meaning her to be a mother to his young daughter.

2. Flatland – Edwin Abbott (1884)
A funny and thought-provoking mathematical satire, which describes how A. Square, resident of the two-dimensional Flatland, has strange encounters with other geometrical entities from a world of three dimensions. 

3. Indian Summer – William Dean Howells (1886)
This Jamesian comedy of love found in middle age is perhaps most enjoyable when one has reached the age of reason oneself. 

Andrew Lang fairy tales

4. The Chronicles of Pantouflia – Andrew Lang (1889/1893)
The editor of the famous Rainbow Fairy Books wrote two original stories which draw on many of the themes and motifs in the tales he knew so well. 

5. The Odd Women – George Gissing (1893)
Although not entirely successful in its characterizations, this novel offers a penetrating analysis of the social and economic plight of “odd” (that is, surplus or unpaired) women in the late nineteenth century. Gissing’s vision is bleak, but has a touch of dark humor. 

6. Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight – Elizabeth von Arnim (1905)
Von Arnim is best known for The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but here’s another charming story about a princess who tires of pomp and wants to be ordinary (but finds this is not so easy as it may seem). Incidentally, I found this title through Girlebooks, which is a great source for classics by women.

Hope Mirrlees fantasy classic 
7. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees (1926)
A slyly humorous story of how “fairy fruit” invades and transforms a respectable town. This beautifully written fantasy lapsed into obscurity for many years until interest was revived recently by admirers including James Blaylock and Neil Gaiman.

8. The Corn King and the Spring Queen – Naomi Mitchison (1931)
With its insights into the magic-saturated, often barbaric mindset of ancient cultures from Greece to Egypt, this massive historical novel offers a fascinating imaginative window into the past. 

9. Mio, My Son – Astrid Lindgren (1954)
This lesser-known fantasy by the creator of Pippi Longstocking is a poetic tale about an unloved boy transported from our world to a new destiny as the son of the king of Farawayland. Sadly out of print, it deserves a campaign to bring it back.

10. The Pooh Perplex – Frederick C. Crews (1965)
A must for all English majors, this priceless parody examines the Pooh books from a variety of critical angles. You’ll never look at Freudian analysis in the same way again. 

A Magical Library: The Bodleian’s Magical Tales

Larrington and Purkiss, eds., Magical Tales (2013)

My one visit to Oxford was long ago as an 18-year-old on a choir tour of England. Our chaperones normally kept a pretty tight rein on us, but for some reason this time they actually let us roam around by ourselves for a while. I was in literary heaven. I visited Blackwell’s bookstore, found “Alice’s Shop” (the model for the sheep’s shop in Through the Looking Glass), and ended up at the Bodleian Library which had a wonderful exhibition of children’s books from the Opie collection. It was truly a magical day for a bookaholic teenager, and I still remember it fondly.

Last year I found out that the Bodleian was having another exhibition that sorely tempted me to fly across the Atlantic once more. Magical Books: From the Middle Ages to Middle Earth featured artifacts related to the work of some of my favorite authors, including C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Alan Garner, known as the “Oxford School” for their ties to the university. Along with ancient scrolls and manuscripts from the Bodleian collection that are known or presumed to have inspired their work, there were artifacts from the authors themselves, such as Lewis’s hand-drawn map of Narnia, Tolkien’s dust jacket design for The Two Towers, and a set of replicas of the Six Signs of Power made for Susan Cooper.

Alas, I wasn’t able to make it in person, but the Bodleian did put up images of many of the exhibited item on their website, which you can still view here. They also produced a companion book called Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children’s Books, which I promptly purchased. It is a lovely high-quality paperback, about 7 inches square, with a nice, heavy wraparound cover (I love these because I can use them instead of a bookmrak), excellent layout and typography, and beautifully reproduced full-color images. So just as a physical object, the book is certainly a success.

Content-wise, the book contains five academic essays. The first is a general consideration of “magical books,” which can refer both to ancient books of spells and alchemy and to modern fantasy literature about magical happenings. The next three essays take on three areas of influence and inspiration for children’s writers, particularly those of the “Oxford School”: Northern mythology, the Middle Ages, and Arthurian legend. The final essay looks at the book itself as a magical, transforming object, in the form of early movable books for children. With a generally readable, engaging style, each essay gives a decent overview of its respective topic. Sometimes I wished for a bit more depth, as the essays tend to briefly survey a lot of books without going much into any one of them, but there isn’t really space for that in this small, heavily illustrated book. (Note that those illustrations include some drawn from the Bodleian exhibition, but not all; it’s not a “catalogue” of the exhibition. The map, dust jacket, and replica signs mentioned above, for example, are not included.)

So, for some armchair traveling into the sources of my favorite magical books, Magical Tales was a great investment, and a lot cheaper than a plane ticket. If you share my love of these fantasy classics, you might want to take a look at it too.


A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia


Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book (2008)

I’d be willing to wager that most readers who prowl these pages fell under the spell of words at an early age, finding both enchantment and release in their power to transport us to a different world. Laura Miller can trace her own bespellment to a particular book, and even a particular moment: the day that her second-grade teacher handed her a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. From that day on, visiting Narnia was something she felt she had to do or die. It’s an experience that many of us who encountered Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia in childhood share–I certainly did.

Many may also relate to Miller’s painful awakening some years later, when she found out that Lewis had planted Christian themes and motifs in his seven children’s books. Raised Catholic but thoroughly disillusioned with the Church, Miller felt betrayed by this intrusion of strangulating doctrine into a world she had considered completely free. She turned away from the Chronicles for many years, until, having become a journalist and critic herself (she is a cofounder of Salon.com), she felt the need to revisit and reconsider a book that, however flawed, indelibly affected her identity as a reader.

The Magician’s Book is the result, ranging through the realms of memoir, biography, literary criticism, and a bit of social and political history to explore the mystery of Narnia’s compelling hold on the imagination, even for those who do not share Lewis’s religious agenda. Miller purposely gives little space to the Christian elements in the Chronicles, which have been exhaustively covered elsewhere. Instead, along with the narrative of her own journey through, away from, and back to Narnia, she explores the roots of Lewis’s imagination in landscape, relationships (most importantly his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien), and especially his own life as a reader. She considers those aspects of Narnia which have been labelled sexist and racist, as well as those that make it so enduringly compelling.

As is appropriate in a book devoted to Lewis, a master craftsman of English prose, Miller’s own writing is lucid, graceful, and a pleasure to read. She covers a vast amount of territory with ease, skillfully transitioning from one aspect of the Chronicles to the next, and from her personal experiences to a more objective critical view. By drawing on her correspondence and interviews with other readers, including Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke, and Jonathan Franzen, she widens the field even further. Anti-Narnians Philip Pullman and John Goldthwaite are also given a hearing.

The particular pleasures of reading in childhood are brief, but indelible for those who have experienced them. Laura Miller’s book is a rare opportunity to revisit them with the eyes of an adult, gaining the insights of maturity, while fully respecting the reality and validity of the child’s perspective. Her portrait of C.S. Lewis is equally balanced and insightful, giving welcome critical consideration to a remarkable man who has all too often been either white-washed by his partisans or demonized by his detractors.

If you have ever opened the door of a wardrobe with a secret hope of finding something there besides coats and mothballs, do open The Magician’s Book. You may find that that elusive magical country is closer than you think.