Bitter Greens & Golden Memes: Re-spinning the Magic

Re-spinning the Magic, with acclaimed fantasy author Kate Forsyth, ran at Writers Victoria in November 2014: scholarship, anecdotes, illustration, discussion, pre-Raphaelite shawl flowing over a podium; and authentic storytelling (telling without reading): a dramatic performance of a Scottish tale about a ring-stone worn hollow by elements, through which the protagonist saw/heard visions. Kate drew the gem from a miniature hut, alerting us to her new book The Puzzle Ring.

Kate has loved reading and writing fairy tales since childhood. Her main focus is fantasy (for various ages), exploring terror and isolation of incarceration, prompting a seven-year journey of writing Bitter Greens, a dark, sexy novel from the viewpoint of Rapunzel, on which Kate wrote a PhD thesis. Her research included maiden towers, French vegetative myths (e.g. Florece & Blanc Fleur); Greek myths Danae & The Golden Shower and Cupid (Eros) & Psyche; Till we have Faces by C.S. Lewis; and Stuart Gray’s The Stone Cage: Rapunzel from the perspective of a witch’s cat.

Seeking a seat beside a brilliant young fairy tale academic, Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario  (blog: Doc in Boots), whom I met through the Monash Fairy Tale Salon, I mentioned how I’d just discovered Kate’s books in WV’s e-news and bought The Impossible Quest in Readings by our State Library. Rebecca-Anne had read Kate’s Rapunzel retelling, Bitter Greens. I misheard. Amid hushed chatter, it sounded like “Better eat your greens”. Linguistic curls bounce well with fairy tales. And Kate has a musical ear for language. A rationalist might wonder if early optical injuries prompted compensatory auditory advancement. (Kate Forsyth is the first Australian to receive an artificial tear-duct.) Or fey magic, honed by passion for reading? There’s rhythm and rhyme, a skip and a hop in fairy tale phrasing; or as Kate elaborates: memorable poetic devices such as repetition, alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. “Bitter greens” can be – well, onomatopoeic.

Other features of fairy tales that Kate spelled out include abstract style (e.g. golden bird); numbers and patterns; pure distillation of plot; and binary opposition with scope for imagination. Moreover, fairy tale language is archaic. Is this why so much fantasy stands a strong chance of longevity? It isn’t strapped to faddishness of pulp fiction, shambling shoe-gaze of street-credibility, or self-consciousness of the literati. It also clears other hurdles, like tendentiousness of the polemicist, or pride of the patriot. Even if there is a moral to the tale – say, a wishing well favouring the least greedy of three sisters – fairy tales encompass a larger space than other genres. We’re given a wide berth and a long rein to deal with taboos at our own pace, in our own way, thanks to metaphors. A gift of distance and time. Like the effort of digesting a nourishing vegetable. She hints at this in her character Quinn’s appraisal of riddles: “Riddles make us think harder and deeper and stronger. They make us look at the world aslant” (p.158, The Impossible Quest).

In a tribute to anthropologist Joseph Campbell, Kate described the fairy story as “the one shapeshifting yet ever constant tale that we tell”, helping to explain the current boom in fairy tale scholarship. Apparently the past 25 years brought a renewed respect for fairy tales. Let’s hope the next 25 elevate fantasy to status of literary fiction. Long overdue.

Half a century ago, Rapunzel ostensibly exemplified passive womanhood – languishing, awaiting rescue by a prince. Deeper studies debunk this. Rapunzel’s creator, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, belonged to a movement of proto-feminists, living in a convent, inventing fairy tales for each other. Charlotte rescued a lover 11 years her junior, who was locked in a tower. Disguising herself in a bearskin, she slipped in with a troupe of minstrels and plotted his escape. Although later punished for seducing him, she had the last word by publishing Rapunzel in 1697.

A listener asked: “If fairy tales reflect the times in which they’re told, might matriarchalism of some revivals indicate emergent feminism?” Films Frozen and Maleficent were cited. (I love Kate’s quip that Disney’s latest Aurora’s sleep was “more of a nap”. Alas, yes! I’d railed against this in my review a few weeks ago. The Long Dream is surely Sleeping Beauty’s sine qua non.) Kate distinguishes between three narrative strands of Rapunzel that possibly equates with a pagan trinity of maiden-mother-crone. She also notes how, in the film Tangle, the protagonist is not a peasant but a princess, swinging on vines of a palatial gym. Where is the claustrophobia of incarceration? Yet her enthusiasm is palpable. Like an architect of a cathedral or castle, Kate learned to construct plot stone by stone, from one counterweight to the next. And like Rapunzel, she became a powerful rescuer, indeed a self-rescuer, having survived a canine mauling, drawing power unto herself.

Kate’s presentation included a fairy tale timeline:

100-200 A.D., ancient Greece: Cupid and Pysche written by Apuleius.

850-860 A.D., China: first known version of Cinderella is written.

C. 1300: Troubadours spread tales across Europe.

C. 1500: One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is first recorded.

1550 – 1553, Italy: Gianfrancesco Straparola publishes Le piacevoli notti (The pleasant nights).

1600s: Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone (The Tale of Tales) presents The Healing Tears, with Petrosinella (little parsley); our heroine is born with a little parsley birthmark on her breast, earliest known version of Rapunzel. Straparola has been called the ‘grandfather of fairy tales’.

1690-1710: French Salons thrive, with Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, known as Countess d’Aulnoy, who invents the term ‘conte de fées’.

1697, France: Charles Perrault publishes Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals), subtitled Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose).

1697: Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1654–1724) – Mademoiselle de La Force – publishes Persinette, who becomes the 1698 Rapunzel of brothers Grimm.

1740: Gabrielle-Suzanne Bardot de Villeneuve publishes Beauty and the Beast, drawing on earlier folklore.

1756, France: Jean-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont republishes an abridged version of it for children.

1812, Germany: Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm publish Volume 1 of Childhood and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen). The red volume that Kate loved, looks like my 1973 edition: Crown Publishers, with black & white plate of Rapunzel on page 33, hair aswirl about her prince, his entreaty scrolling below: “O Rapunzel, Rapunzel, / Let down thine hair”.

1823: Edgar Taylor publishes the first English translation of these fairytales, featuring illustrations by George Cruikshank. (Kate displayed his picture of The Golden Root.)

1889: Andrew Lang publishes The Blue Fairy Book, first of a series of colour-identifiable volumes.

Kate highlighted a paradox in fairy tales. They are both Anywhere and Nowhere. (Aside from me: Sufis say “Once upon a time” means “Once and for all time”. Neverland is also here and now, and hints at the Arabic phrase “Alam Al Mithal”: The Land of Nonwhere.)

You can find the rest of this timeline up to the present, in Kate’s blog:

Paradoxically, fairy tales are both mimetic and relevant. They repeat and invent. Their champions deserve our support, when tertiary funding demands cutting-edge relevance or groundbreaking innovation, which literalists and materialists claim as their turf. Fairy tales deal in symbolic, archetypal language. Kate’s observation that Disney’s revival of another fairy heroine  (Snow White) echoed post-war regeneration, makes sense. Tell a tale, tell the time.

Kate mentioned Rudabeh, whom I’d read about in Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Persian book of Kings. Here we have a woman whose name begins with R, dangling her plait of hair down to her lover, who impregnates her. Is Rudabeh a prototype for Rapunzel? Not so, Kate argues. A crucial motif is Healing Tears, rooted in the Mediterranean – classical and medieval Europe. I pointed out that Ferdowsi makes abundant reference to roses, rosewater and rivers flowing with rosewater as a restorative purifier, or for sooth-telling. For Rapunzel it’s rose briars that tear the prince’s eyes. True to the paradoxical nature of fairy tales, roses also symbolise passion or fertility; it is by these vines that Rapunzel’s regenerative tears flow. Could there be a clue in the word “tear” as a verb: “to tear”, to rip? Are roses the missing link? The same vines that bring thorns, also bring flowers. (As Kate, resplendent in her rose gown, spoke of how roses and thorns abound in her work, how could I not ask about rosewater?) Yet I defer to her scholarship, and note how she avouches that her focus on Tears that Heal never dispelled her interest in the motif of abundant golden hair, as demonstrated superbly in in the Scottish tale she performed, and in her displaying a picture of St Barbara: the first time red-gold hair appears in art.

We discussed the weeping for Tammuz, whom I equate with Tamuzi/Dumuzid/Dumuzi, consort of Inanna (who in the Sumerian liturgy circa 3000 BC, died to Ereshkigal before returning from the underworld). Kate adduces that Charlotte-Rose, as a Huguenot, was more likely to know of this figure through the Bible. Basile might have known about the Mesopotamian myth, since he worked for the Venetian Republic at the centre of trade with the East; but it was Charlotte-Rose who introduced the Healing Tears: evidence perhaps of matriarchal mythology in Gascony, through a memeplex or chain of motifs. Kate notes that The Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) has long cast an influence on fairy tales. She’s employed its story-within-a-story narrative (a Russian grandmother doll structure) in her Rapunzel retelling, Bitter Greens, for an adult readership.

In my collection there’s an old blue book by F.H. Lee entitled Folk Tales of All Nations in which he wrote: “Folktales may represent degraded mythology or… mythology in the making” (vi).  Kate prefers to call them “disguised myths”, providing distinctions (here with my embellishments):

  1. Myths: narratives of immortal or supernatural protagonists (e.g. gods, goddesses);
  2. Legends: narratives of extraordinary protagonists (knights, bards, sultans, mages, emperors, paladins, sibyls, seers, grande dames);
  3. Fairy Tales: ordinary folk (a peasant on his/her way to market, fishing, chopping wood, etc);
  4. Fables: narratives with animal protagonists conveying a moral (e.g. talking beasts).

Affectionately quoting Mircea Eliade’s description of fairy tales as “the easy doublet of myth”, Kate reminds us how fairy tales are rooted in ancient storytelling traditions. I like how she aims for the “quality of arresting strangeness”. She outlined contemporary fairy tale retelling forms: (i) Pastiche: new tales in an old style, e.g. fairy tales of Oscar Wilde or Hans Christian Anderson.

(ii) Spin-offs: further development of a particular thread, e.g. writing by Gregory McGurion.

(iii) Allusion & Contextuality: drawing on little-known tales, as in Kate’s book The Puzzle Ring.

Emphasizing “personal transformation”, revelation of truth disguised, or “magic and metamorphosis”, she cites Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose and Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, among others. When someone asked about Thumbelina, Kate replied that it’s the mother in that tale who transforms. She recommends The Snow Child. In The Impossible Quest, Kate’s Grand Teller (albeit not necessarily an authorial voice) advises: “If you are brave of heart, sharp of wit, strong of spirit and steadfast of purpose, there is nothing you cannot achieve” (p.93). A tincture of noble Narnian chivalry? Despite loving such ideals as one who breathed the wild sweet air of Narnia, I suspect that fairy tales aren’t about internal magic alone. What about circumstance, chance, luck, fate, fortune? Faerie comes from the French Fay/Fey, with Latin Fatae (classical Fates) replacing the old English elf during the Tudor period. Magic-realist Jorge Luis Borges elucidates in The Book of Imaginary Beings (p.60) that the Latin Fatum (fate, destiny), relates to Faery folk. If we take another path, would we still find that token, charm, rune or guide? Perhaps some magic inhabits the world independently of us? Do fey folk always reward mortals for being good, brave or clever? They can be capricious. Whimsical. Amoral. Perhaps they play into an ageless struggle between harming and healing. Thorns and petals. Tearing, restoring, regenerating.

“I dwell in possibility”, wrote Emily Dickinson. In fairy tales, impossible things happen. Not merely from reversal of fortune, or subversion of norms; but through currents between binaries. Once upon a time, a little girl lost a tear duct to a savage hound. She faced life-threatening infection. That girl loved Rapunzel’s healing tears, and wrote Bitter Greens. Could there be a greater way to overcome bitterness than to spin loss into love, like hay into gold? Tears that Heal.

A wonderful interview with Kate:

Kate’s homepage:

Review by Louisa John-Krol, November-December 2014