Fairy Tale Focus On Illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett

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It was my Great-Aunt Annie is the one who first introduced me to fairy tales. She was a retired teacher who had a house filled with books. It was she who gave me my very first collection of fairy tales with the inscription, “May these tales remind you that there is always magic to be found in this world.” I used to love going into her library and looking at all of the books she had – many of which were completely unfamiliar to me. One title that drew my attention was Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. My Great-Aunt allowed me to take it down from the shelf and look at it because she knew how dearly I valued books and would not in any way damage the pages. It was this book that would introduce me to the artist Virginia Frances Sterrett. I was mesmerized.

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It was only as an adult, that I began to learn about the tragically short and productive life of this artist. In researching about her, what struck me was how similar in some ways we were. As an introverted child, Virginia preferred the world of imagination, drawing, and daydreaming to socializing with children her own age. I thought of my own childhood. School was a torment. As a shy, introverted child, I struggled with the social interactions one had to endure whether it was in class or during recess. I would much rather be left alone to read, draw, daydream, or explore the woods behind the house where I grew up. At school, I was constantly told that there were a time and a place for creativity, daydreaming and imagination but it did not take me long to realize that school was never the place and there never really was the time for what I longed for most. School was something I would have to endure until weekends or holidays when I was free to explore and wander and wonder on my own.

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As a child growing up in Missouri, all Virginia wanted to do was draw. Her world was the page and how she best expressed herself. I’m sure it was also a place where she felt she had some control, especially since her father died when she was young. Shortly after his death, her mother moved the family from Chicago to Missouri. As a sensitive girl, the change was overwhelming and she became more inward. Art was her form of outward expression but there weren’t many avenues for her, so, as a teenager, she began to enter her drawings into competitions. At the Kansas State Fair art competition, she won three first prizes. This gave her enough confidence to apply to the Art Institute of Chicago. They were so impressed with her work that they gave her a full scholarship.

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Sadly, a year later, Virginia would have to return home to tend to her mother, who had become ill. She would become the sole supporter of her family.

Upon turning nineteen, her own health began to fail and she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. At the same time, she also received her first commission from the Penn Publishing Company to illustrate the Comptesse de Ségur’s Old French Fairy Tales, for which she would receive $500 for the eight watercolors and 16 pen and ink drawings, with an additional $250 for a colored drawing for the cover and ink drawings for the end-papers and boards.

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Penn Publishing Company was so happy with Virginia’s work that they quickly followed with another commission. This time it was to illustrate Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The book was published in 1921. Two years later, Virginia’s family moved from Missouri to the warmer climate of California in the hopes it would help Virginia’s weakening health. When this did not improve her health, she entered Compton Sanitorium. She had become so weakened that she could not spend the hours she once did doing what she loved most: drawing. Only drawing for a short time each day, it took her three years to complete her commission for an edition of Arabian Nights. The illustrations for this book are considered her masterpieces.

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In 1930, she started work on her last commission: a series of illustrations for Myths and Legends, which she would never complete. A year later, Virginia died at the young age of thirty. After her death, the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch wrote: “Her achievement was beauty, a delicate, fantastic beauty, created with brush and pencil. Almost unschooled in art, her life spent in prosaic places of the West and Middle West, she made pictures of haunting loveliness, suggesting Oriental lands she never saw and magical realms no one ever knew except in the dreams of childhood. Perhaps it was the hardships of her own life that gave the young artist’s work its fanciful quality. In the imaginative scenes she set down on paper she must have escaped from the harsh actualities of existence.”

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There’s a part of me that wishes to think of Virginia walking in the realm of Faerie with her sketchpad and drawing to her heart’s content.

Whenever I look at her work, I cannot help but take in consideration the beauty Virginia created despite the difficulties she faced. The illustrations are how she longed to see the world and imagine it to be. Her watercolors are luminous and have a grace to them. I look at the solemn expressions of her figures, particularly the females, and see a kind of stoic resilience and inner strength that she gave them. In them I see Virginia striving, in the weakness of her body, striving for perfection and reaching beyond the limitations of her own ill health.

So when I picture her in the realm of Faerie, I imagine her as Queen.

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Fairy Queen Of Animation: Lotte Reiniger

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In 1926, eleven years before Walt Disney’s Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, German animator Lotte Reiniger released her full-length silhouette animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. While generations are familiar with Snow White and recognize the name Walt Disney, very few, sadly, have even heard of Lotte Reiniger. How did such a pioneer in the field become so easily forgotten? She created over sixty films but of those, eleven are considered lost, and fifty have survived.

From the time she was a girl in Berlin, Germany, Lotte was fascinated by silhouettes and paper cutting. She delighted in creating shadow puppets and putting on plays of Shakespeare and of the fairy tales she so dearly loved to entertain her family in their living room in the puppet theatre she had built. As she once said in an interview, “I could cut silhouettes almost as soon as I could manage to hold a pair of scissors. I could paint, too, and read, and recite; but these things did not surprise anyone very much. But everybody was astonished about the scissor cuts, which seemed a more unusual accomplishment. The silhouettes were very much praised, and I cut silhouettes for all the birthdays in the family. Did anyone warn me as to where this path would leave? Not in the least; I was encouraged to continue.”

It was only after seeing the films of Georges Méliès that she decided she wanted to combine her love of shadow puppets with this magical new medium of film. German director Paul Wegener, who was best known for his Expressionist film based on the Jewish myth, The Golem (1915). It was he who introduced Lotte to a group of young, experimental animators who were setting up their own studio.  It was working with them that she made her own first film, Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens (The Ornament of a Loving Heart) in 1919. It was at this studio that she would meet Bertolt Brecht and, later, her future husband Carl Koch.

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It was in 1923 that Reiniger began her first feature film. For three years in an attic in Potsdam, she would work on her first animated feature. She described her crude working conditions this way:

The studio was very low, being an attic under the roof, so the shooting field with its glass plate had to be very near the floor in order to get the camera up high enough in a suitable distance, with just enough space to place the lamps underneath. I had to kneel on the seat of an old dismantled motorcar to execute my manipulation. I liked this very much; it was a much more comfortable position for me than sitting on a swivel chair as I had to do later on. The whole contraption looked like a four-poster bed: the camera being supported by sturdy wooden beams on which we could fix and take off to our heart’s content ever construction we might need for our special effects.

With simple tools like scissors and cardboard sheets, she would cut the figures and backgrounds to create a form of shadow-animation that has its tradition in Chinese shadow puppetry. In her book Shadow Puppets, Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films, Reiniger writes, “Your aim must be to find what kind of talent you really have and to develop it. Animation is basically not so much a technical implement as the expression of the spirit behind it. To see that that spirit goes into your shooting must be your overriding ambition.”

Many of her friends and colleagues were disappointed with Reiniger’s decision to animate a fairy tale instead of dealing with the political and economic problems of Germany at that time. Esther Leslie said, “What did the dancing shadows, trapped in a flat world of genies and demons, caught only with sidelong glances, have to do with the spectacular collapse of the German economy in the epoch of hyperinflation?” Why was she creating pure fantasy during a time of great upheaval? Those around Reiniger saw fairy tales as sheer escapism, as irrelevant to a suffering nation, and had no greater context on the society that they saw in crisis. Lotte would only say, “I believe in the truth of fairy tales more than I believe in the truth of the newspaper.”

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What they failed to grasp, as so many people do about fairy tales, is escapism in the sense of freeing a bird from its cage is. Using the lens of fantasy, these tales cause those who read them to see their own world more clearly. Within her tale (based on elements of One Thousand and One Nights and “The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy” in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book), Reiniger presents a story that contains feminism and equality as well as issues about class that resonate even today. Like all great storytellers, Lotte Reiniger spins a tale that reaches a deeper truth through the use of imagery, metaphor, and subtext.

Reiniger’s films are fairy tales that are closer to their roots than Disney: dark, European fairy tales without sentimentality. The grace and complexity she achieves with such simplicity and beauty of imagery are astounding. Prince Ahmed is a glorious, wonderful film full of lyrical beauty, eerie magic, charming comedy, and does not shy away from the sinister and frightening evil. These elegant shadows flit across the screen as if we are watching a kind of dream. Her film contains both the magical playfulness she delighted in seeing in the films of Georges Méliès and the dreamlike horrors she saw in the works of Paul Wegener.  Her peer, Hans Richter, said that, while her films were based on fairy tales and she used the ancient techniques of shadow puppets, she “belonged to the avant-garde as far as independent production and courage were concerned.”

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Drawing from both the traditions of fairy tale and the techniques used by Javanese Wayang shadow puppets, Reiniger and combined those with German Expressionism to create animated films that are imaginative, innovative, and sublime.

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An auteur of filmmaking, Lotte wrote all her scripts, drew her own storyboards, cut and made all of the silhouette figures and manipulated them while her husband ran the camera. The multiplane camera used for animation was also her own invention. Walt Disney, himself, studied her technique closely and developed a more sophisticated multiplane camera, which he patented. Her work would inspire later animators like Michel Ocelet (best known for his animated film Kirikou and the Sorceress) and stop-motion animator Henry Selick (who created such films as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline). Selick has said, “I was influenced by Reiniger, with her twitchy, cutout animation, which I happened to see at a very young age.”

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Reiniger’s worlds are created out of shadow and light and yet one watches her films with awe at the emotional range she is capable of creating out of cut paper. There is a visual richness to these films that fit well with their retelling of classic fairy tales. Like a sorceress, Reiniger can conjure life out of shadow play as no one else has before or since.  They are enchanting and one can easily become engrossed by what some might view as their naive charm. But that is discounting the detailed and delicate forms that she masterfully created. Since the figures are silhouettes, Reiniger had to use gestures and movement to express feelings and action.

Her black and white images fit nicely into a genre (fairy tales) in which there are good and evil. It is not about nuance but deals in tropes and her films are a pure manifestation of them. There is a magic to her animation. Czech animator Jan Svankmajer explained, “Animation enables me to give magical powers to things and to cast doubt over reality.” For Reiniger the medium fit with fairy tales and fantasy because they allowed for the characters to do magical and fantastic things that could not be done in real life. Besides, from the time she was a little girl, she was captivated by fairy tales and fables whose characters and elements of magic were simply irresistible.

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Reiniger continued to create her animated films all the way up until her death in 1981.  When asked why she focused on fairy tales for children, she answered, “”I love working for children because they are a very critical and very thankful public.”

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Snow White Learns Witchcraft

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For as long as I can remember, I have loved fairy tales. Fairy tales were dark and scary places where children could be eaten by witches or even their own mothers. Fairy tales were populated by wolves and goblins and dragons. There was always the possibility that one would have to perform three tasks to decide one’s own fate. Amidst the danger and the darkness, there was also the realization that one’s character was determined by one’s choices: good or bad. Helping a small creature might one day help in having that bird or animal return the favor and, thereby, help the hero or heroine survive. Fairy tales were complicated and fraught with dangers. Yet, there was always hope. Hope that one could trick the giant, defeat the dragon, overcome the curse, or outwit Death itself.

What I loved and continue to love about fairy tales is that they have been around for centuries and have never disappeared. They have been told and retold and passed on from generation to generation. Each one finding their own voice in the voices of their ancestors’ stories. Like many children of my age, I learned of fairy tales not only through books but also films (particularly those of Walt Disney). Disney sanitized fairy tales even more than the Brothers Grimm did. He softened the sharp edges, lightened the darkness, and filled them with songs. As a child, I loved these films. But as I grew older, I began to believe that I had outgrown the childishness of fairy tales. I was a teenager and, as such, I knew everything and had no more use for magic and fairies and “Once upon a time.” Then I read Angela Carter. She was like an h-bomb whose explosion continues to have ramifications to how I approach and read fairy tales. It was Angela Carter who made me reevaluate and take another look at fairy stories.  I also had begun to read authors who wrote about fairy tales such as Bruno Bettelheim, Marina Warner, and Jack Zipes. I discovered that my favorite authors also adored fairy tales: everyone from Italo Calvino to Philip Pullman.

It’s always thrilling to discover an author I’ve never read before but with whose work reminds me yet again why I hold fairy tales as something vital and necessary to our culture. One such author is Theodora Goss. Her latest collection is entitled Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems. Like Angela Carter before her, Goss brings a unique and feminist voice to the genre. She takes fairy tales that those who’ve read them are deeply familiar with and makes them unexpected and fresh. Like a child first discovering the fairy tales I now cherish most, I found myself not wanting to put the book down. She weaves her own magic in retelling works by the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde. She transforms these tales and makes them wholly her own.

The collection is made of eight stories and twenty-three poems that form a cohesive whole. My favorite of them all was “The Nightingale and the Rose,” which is so beautifully and poignantly written in its reminder that fairy tale, storybook love is not what we often expect it to be. It is obvious from her deft ability to weave such tales that Goss has a real knowledge and love of her source material. She is steeped in the fairy tale tradition and draws from the past while, at the same time, recasting them in a modern and unique way. She has a way of magically turning a phrase or adding a certain slant that makes the reader both surprised and delighted by the change. As I read each story and poem, I discovered once more that fairy tales transcend facts and reach for deeper truths that grapple with the very DNA that makes us human. Goss reminds us again of why we continue to tell such tales and why fantasy sheds a light on reality in a way no other story can.

For anyone who truly loves fairy tales, this is a collection they need to have on their shelves.

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The Meeting Of The Great Storytellers

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Ever since he was a young man, Hans Christian Andersen dreamed of visiting Weimar. the small town in the Thuringian hills.  Its sense of history and mythology were something that drew the now famous author. Ever since the poet Goethe, the town had become a place of pilgrimage for artists from around the world. As Andersen wrote in a letter, “An extraordinary desire impelled me to see the city where Goethe, Schiller, Wieland, and Herder had lived and from which so much light had streamed forth over the world.” While the young author did not have the nerve to visit the great man himself, as Goethe was still live, he did decide to visit two brothers whose work had been so important to him in writing his own: the Brothers Grimm.

It’s a very odd tale, as Hans Christian Andersen simply turned up at their house, without a letter of introduction or any notice. Why? Because Andersen believed that with his new found fame if he were to be known by anybody in Berlin, it would be the Brothers Grimm who would truly know who he was. As he writes:

I, therefore, sought out their residence. The maidservant asked me which of the brothers I wished to speak to.

“With the one who has written the most,” said I, because I did not know, at that time, which of them had most interested himself in Märchen.

“Jakob is the most learned,” said the maid-servant.

“Well, then, take me to him.”

I entered the room, and Jakob Grimm, with his knowing and strongly marked countenance, stood before me.

“I come to you,” said I, “without letters of introduction, because I hope that my name is not wholly unknown to you.”

“Who are you?” asked he.

I told him, and Jakob Grimm said, in a half-embarrassed voice. “I do not remember to have heard this name: what have you written?”

Hans Christian Andersen had a very inflated and fragile ego. Hearing these words from one of the great creators of fairy tales deflated and crushed the young author.  Still, Andersen told Jakob the stories that he had written.

“I do not know them,” Jakob admitted, “but mention to me some of your other writing, because I certainly must have heard them spoken of.”

Andersen named several of the titles, but to no avail. Jakob simply shook his head. “I felt myself unlucky,” he would write.

“But what must you think of me,” said I, “that I come to you as a total stranger, and enumerate myself what I have written: You must know me! There has been published in Denmark a collection of the Märchen of all nations, which is dedicated to you, and in there is at least one story of mine.” Andersen was desperate for this great man to know who he was. Again, Jakob Grimm replied embarrassedly, “No. I have not even read that, but it delights me to make your acquaintance. Allow me to conduct you to my brother Wilhelm?”

Deeply embarrassed and ashamed, and only wanting to get away from there, Hans Christian Andersen declined with, “No, thank you.” He had fared badly with one brother and could not take the chance of doing so with the other as well.

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This story is recounted in Jackie Wullschlager’s biography Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller

The Great Puzzle: Lewis Carroll & Alice In Wonderland

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Charles Dodgson, better known as his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, hated the very books that made him famous for precisely that reason. An extremely shy and private mathematician and logician. he despised getting fan letters and hated, even more, when he was recognized by strangers because of having penned Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. And yet these books, Wonderland, in particular, have had a huge impact on the culture and have become a kind of modern mythology. Even those who have never read the books, know the stories, the characters and even some of the quotable lines. The books have inspired over thirty films and innumerable merchandising. Yet why is this? Unlike so much of children’s literature, Alice never changes, does not go through any character arc, and simply reacts to a very bizarre and unreasonable world around her. Perhaps that is why the director Tim Burton said he never felt an emotional connection to the books (Making me wonder then why he adapted the material into his own dreadful version).

Alice in Wonderland, along with a few other classics, is one of the books I read yearly. I cannot recall a time in my childhood when I was not aware of this book or did not love it, though my mother had a disdain for it (She found it bizarre and ugly). Perhaps, being a shy and introverted person myself, I got that part of Lewis Carroll. I could see how he is Alice in so many ways because the world was overwhelming and frightening to him A stutterer, he dreaded having to go to any social engagement where he would have to make small talk (something any introvert dreads dearly). When one looks at photographs of Carroll, one sees an awkward young man who is deeply uncomfortable being in front of the camera. There is always a nervous look to him with his gentle eyes and soft, intelligent smile.  Those who knew him said that he did not form close friendships very easily. His shyness made him appear distant and aloof. Because of this, many never experienced his wit and cleverness.

As I read and study the lives of the great children’s authors, it is amazing to me how many of them were indeed shy, reserved, introverted people. Some, like Edward Lear and Kenneth Grahame, preferred places to people. Others, like Carroll and J.M. Barrie, preferred the company of children to adults (Something which has brought controversy to both men both during and after their lifetimes). James Joyce even referred to him as “Lewd Carroll.” Certainly, Carroll had many friendships with young girls over the years of his life. He would carry a black bag filled with toys and gifts to strike up such friendships. His room at Christ Church resembled a nursery with all of its music-boxes, dolls puzzles, stuffed animals, and wind-up toys. In Oxford, he was seen as a sort of Pied Piper figure.  He would write that “Children are three-fourths of my life.” Virginia Woolf once wrote of him that at the very core of this man was “childhood. It lodged in him whole and entire.” Much of his relating to children came from being an older brother who delighted in entertaining and playing with his 10 brothers and sisters. He often performed magic or puppet shows for them in the toy theatre he built, as well as telling them stories and drawing the pictures to go along with them.

It is this strong connection Lewis Carroll has to children that translates so well in Alice in Wonderland. What child does not feel as Alice does (confused, puzzled) by the adult world where it appears as if grown-ups can change the rules on a whim with no reason or explanation given. What child is not both fascinated and frustrated by the world around them?

As a child, I loved how Alice in Wonderland began:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations.”

I love how the adventure that will become Wonderland begins with a bored child. This is the essence of childhood: boredom leading to imagination and creativity and the creation of a magical, wondrous world. If Alice had been entertained (in this day and age, on her smartphone taking selfies to post to social media) then there would have been no adventure, no wonderland. Everything hinges on a moment of having nothing to do, being bored, and, thereby being present enough to notice the white rabbit in the first place. How many children today would never, ever see the white rabbit because they were on technology?

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As an adult, rereading the book for the umpteenth time, I still feel a sense of joy at how Carroll begins his marvellous tale. A common object (a white rabbit) made uncommon (waistcoat and pocket-watch) just as C.S. Lewis made a common street-lamp magical by putting it in snowy Narnia.  Having been a shy, introverted boy, I used to love spending time alone in the woods behind our house. Because of the books I read (from Beatrix Potter to Kenneth Grahame to A.A. Milne), I believed that animals could indeed dress and talk as we do and that I just had to be there in the woods at just the right moment to catch them doing so. Because of this, I was aware of the natural world and paid a great deal of attention to animals. Whenever I saw a rabbit in the overgrown fields in the wild, I would attempt to follow the rabbit in the mere hopes that I, too, would find the rabbit hole to another, more magical world (yes, reading also convinced me that there were portals to other realms if one just found them).

No matter how many times I have re-read Alice in Wonderland, the story has remained fresh and imaginative and inventive and has not lost any of its magic. I am drawn in by Lewis Carroll’s playful language that’s filled with hidden jokes (often related to mathematics and the world of Oxford). Although John Tenniel’s illustrations for the original printing of Alice in Wonderland remain my favourite. I both collect and enjoy reading copies of the story with the many artists who have illustrated this classic work ever since, including my most recent version with artwork by Andrea D’Aquino. I love how her fusion of watercolours and collage bring a new life and vitality that matches the vigorous topsy-turvy world of Wonderland.

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D’Aquino’s bright and beguiling images match Carroll’s vivid wordplay and creativity.

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Returning again to Wonderland this year, I marvelled at how Lewis Carroll creates a new kind of fairy tale, as he writes, “In a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy lore, I sent Alice straight down a rabbit hole . . .  without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” He invented a new, more modern fairy tale because, like any great storyteller, he had an eager audience (both the Liddell girls and his friend Robinson Duckworth) who enjoyed and wanted to hear more of his tale. As Carroll put it, they were all “hungry for news of fairyland” and they “would not be said ‘nay’ to: from whose lips ‘Tell us a story, please,” had all the stern immutability of Fate!”

The child in me still loves that, like any great fairy tale, Alice unlocks the door to this new world with a golden key, which seems fitting in any great fairy story. And, as any great fairy tale that came before it, Alice in Wonderland is a fantastical tale rooted in the real world. He has populated this new fairyland with characters who become as real to us as our neighbours and friends: the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, or the Caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe on a large mushroom.

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Even in my adulthood, my attention and imagination are grabbed and not let go throughout this entire wild ride that is Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Yet the older I get, the more I find pleasure in the wisdom of Lewis Carroll that I missed as a child. Take Alice’s interactions with the Cheshire Cat, which not only plays on words and ideas but contains within its absurdity, real philosophical truths.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where -”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

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As a child, I found that conversation confusing and baffling. I, like Alice, wanted answers to questions that didn’t often have them. But the nonsense perspectives of the Cheshier Cat or the Caucus Race or the Mock-Turtle all reveal the ludicrousness of the adult world (such as politics) that often seem to be nonsensical and irrational.  Victorian England is on display in the fantastical, eccentric, and weird world Lewis writes about. He also patchworked his world from that around him: the dormouse was based on Dante Gabriel Rossett’s pet wombat that Carroll encountered whenever he visited Rossetti at his Oxford home, or that the Mad Hatter was modelled on a Theophilus Carter (known as a mad hatter around Christ Church because he was never seen without his top hat and he was always espousing eccentric ideas), to the Dodo himself (based on the one Carroll saw in Oxford’s Ashmolean collection).

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Outside of Alice Liddel and Oxford, one of the most critical influences on Wonderland was Lewis Carroll’s friendship with another minister and author of fairy tales, George MacDonald. After he had written Alices Adventures Undergroundwhich was the original title, and illustrated the work with his own artwork, Carroll gave the manuscript to MacDonald who read the story to his own daughters. The whole family enjoyed the tale and George first encouraged Lewis to expand it and then to get it published. It was only after MaDonald’s suggestion, that he did lengthen the story and filled it with characters, such as the Mad Hatter, that we could not imagine not being there to begin with. Even Alice’s cat is based on the MacDonald’s real-life cat Snowdrop. The two men’s friendship was filled with mutual admiration, encouragement, and inspired each other’s writing.

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The more I learn about the inspirations of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece and of his life, I find that gaining understanding does absolutely nothing to detract from my adoring this great work of literature. I love how it creatively and imaginatively portrays a child’s approach to not only the world around them but themselves. Alice, at one point, asks, “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” And that is, indeed, the puzzle of the story. A girl trying to begin to understand that great question we all ask ourselves and will continue to do so throughout our lives: Who am I? It is that question that lies at the very heart of Wonderland.

In a letter that Carroll wrote to one of his child-friends, Janet Merriman, he penned these words:

The `Why?’ cannot, and need not, be put into words. Those for whom a child’s mind is a sealed book, and who see no divinity in a child’s smile, would read such words in vain: while for anyone that has ever loved one true child, no words are needed. For he will have known the awe that falls on one in the presence of a spirit fresh from GOD’s hands, on whom no shadow of sin, and but the outermost fringe of the shadow of sorrow, has yet fallen: he will have felt the bitter contrast between the haunting selfishness that spoils his best deeds and the life that is but an overflowing love–for I think a child’s first attitude to the world is a simple love for all living things: and he will have learned that the best work a man can do is when he works for love’s sake only, with no thought of name, or gain, or earthly reward.

This letter reveals that Carroll, like so many of his age, had an idealization of childhood that saw it as a time or purity, innocence, and a spirit of creativity that was free from selfish gain. Like so many of the great children’s authors (Lear, Barrie, Grahame, and Milne) never lose that sense of childhood wonder, even when their worlds (either in childhood or adulthood) are so filled with tragedy and loneliness. Many seek that time of innocence because they felt disconnected, isolated, and are filled with adulthood fears, self-doubts, and a deep longing and nostalgia for the childlike in an ever-changing society that they were outside of in so many ways.  Is it any wonder then that Lewis Carroll would write in one of his letters that, “Imagination is the only weapon against reality”?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way Past Winter

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“It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught rivers in such a frost their spray froze and scattered down like clouded crystals on the stilled water. A winter that came, and never left.”

So begins The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

For as long as I can remember, I have adored tales of winter. Whether it be C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe or fairy tales like The Snow Queen, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, I love finding a quiet, cozy corner to get beneath a blanket with a cup of tea, and lose myself within the pages of a book while, outside, the world is blanketed in the papery-white of snow. Even now, I can recall the deliciousness of first reading Susan Cooper’s words:

The snow lay thin and apologetic over the world. That wide grey sweep was the lawn, with the straggling trees of the orchard still dark beyond; the white squares were the roofs of the garage, the old barn, the rabbit hutches, the chicken coops. Further back there were only the flat fields of Dawson’s farm, dimly white-striped. All the broad sky was grey, full of more snow that refused to fall. There was no colour anywhere.

This certainly described the world outside my very window. My yard is covered in white. It’s an unfamiliar and strange occurrence for us to have snow this early in the year. I glance out our window and spot a dot of blood-red hopping in contrast against all this white. It’s a Cardinal. It was the perfect weather to read Hargrave’s latest. Because I adored her previous books, I did not wait for this one to be published in the States but ordered it online and I am so glad that I did for this is not only her newest novel, it’s also her best.

Just like Susan Cooper, Hargrave creates an imagined world that is rooted in myth, folklore, and magic.  All great storytellers can craft words into worlds. They can transport the reader from wherever they are in the world, in their own life, into that of the story. As a boy, when I read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I entered Narnia. I shivered in the cold and could hear the crunch of the snow as Lucy first set foot in that magical land. When we are young, we give ourselves over to stories as we never do after that. So much of the books we read as children are invested with our own imagination that the places there are far more vivid than what’s even on the page itself. Then, as we grow up, we continue to seek out those magical books that remind us of our youth so that we can, once more, return to the imagined realms that so captured us.

In Polish novelist, Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, he begins with a narrator as a boy discovering what he simply calls “The Book.” As Schulz writes:

Somewhere in the dawn of childhood, at the first daybreak of life, the horizon had brightened with its gentle glow. The Book lay in all of its glory . . .

When the boy is left alone with The Book, he describes this experience of how “the wind would rustle through its pages and the pictures would rise. And as the windswept pages were turned, merging the colors and shapes, a shiver ran through the columns of text, freeing from among the letters flocks of swallows and larks. Page after page floated through the air and gently saturated the landscape with brightness.”

The Book came alive for the young boy and as he grows older, he longs to return to The Book but he cannot find it. All the books he finds are just books. They are no longer that magical one that came to life. Why? Because the narrator grew up.

Like Bruno Schulz’s narrator, I long to return, too, to The Book. My childhood was filled with them. Sometimes, as an adult, I will get glimpses again (rereading those books to my own children) or in discovering an author whose works, like a gentle breeze on one’s face, recalls the past in no less a way than the madeleine dipped in tea did for Marcel Proust. The Way Past Winter is just such a book.

For as long as I can remember, I have adored and devoured fairy tales like Edmund did the Turkish delight. My favorites tended to be those of the colder climates: Slavic, Nordic fairy tales covered in snow and magic.

Because of the cold, icy snow outside, it was the perfect day to read The Way Past Winter and the hours passed unnoticed as I lost myself in the journey of Mila and her two sisters as they journey to find their brother in the great forest of Eldbjørn. All great fairy tales need forests. Forests filled with spiritual symbolism (from fairy tales to Dante). Forests are filled with the joys and dangers of the psyche, they’re steeped in ancient myth and legend. A forest in a fairy tale brings with it all of the magic and danger of every fairy tale forest. We instantly populate such forests with the imagery of all we’ve read. Thick, dark woodlands where danger lurks and mystery are awaiting us. J. C. Cooper writes in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, “Entering the Dark Forest or the Enchanted Forest is a threshold symbol: the soul entering the perils of the unknown; the realm of death; the secrets of nature, or the spiritual world which man must penetrate to find the meaning.”

While Hargrave creates a richly imagined world that is rooted in myth, magic and folktales, it is also a world that is wholly her own. She writes with lucid, beautiful, lyrical prose that draws the reader in and allows them to lose themselves in the descriptions, within the story. Never while reading this tale did my mind wander off or did I grow bored. She deftly weaves her tale as all great storytellers do so that I, like the listeners of such tales have always done, found myself asking, “What happens next?” In fact, I imagined this story being told by a fire, with a dark winter’s night outside. Snow falling heavily, covering everything. Yet, inside, those gathered around the hearth are warm and shadows flicker and dance on the walls, as they are enraptured by the storyteller’s gift of narrative. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is at the top of her form with this story and does not disappoint.

Like the forests of old, the forest of The Way  Past Winter is a place of magic and danger and of transformation. As we have now entered winter, I could not think of a more perfect book to read alone or aloud to children than this one.

 

 

 

Magic Is Forgetting: The Winter Of The Witch

Russian fairy tale illustration

For as long as I can remember, I have adored Russian fairy tales. They were filled with all manner of magical creations that I had never encountered in other fairy tales: the Baba Yaga riding through the forest on her mortar using the pestle to speed it along and a broom to sweep away any tracks of her, of the Firebird, Father Frost, Vasilisa the Brave, Koschei the Immortal, Vasilii the Unlucky, Medved (the bear), Kikimora, Nightingale the Robber, and Gorynych the Dragon to name just a few. I got swept up in these stories and they are the ones I return to most often. One of my favorite recent works that draws from these great tales is Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless (published in 2011). What I love is how fairy tales are so rich that they can be retold by future generations in their own fashion, that they can draw from the originals and make them wholly new and, at the same time, deeply familiar.

Fairy tales are meant to be discovered and rediscovered again and again. Writers should return to them in order to recast the spells of enchantments these works offer up so willingly, to find in their stories a new one to transform so that readers can delight in this new work and then return to those that were the origin for it. As Marina Warner writes in her book From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, “The store of fairy tales, that blue chamber where stories lie waiting to be rediscovered, holds out the promise of just those creative enchantments, not only for its own characters caught in its own plotlines; it offers magical metamorphoses to the one who opens the door, who passes on what was found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. The faculty of wonder, like curiosity can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due.”

Winter of the Witch

Katherine Arden began her Winternight Trilogy with The Bear and the Nightingale (published in 2017) and then followed it up with the sequel The Girl in the Tower (also published in 2017).  Arden, who spent a year in Russia, and got her degree in Russian, is someone who feels at home within the Slavic tales. In an interview with  Matt Staggs on Unbound Worlds, she said, “I had a book of Russian fairy tales growing up. I absolutely loved it, and read it until it fell apart. I had this background interest in Russian fairy tales before I went to Russia, but living in Moscow really deepened and enhanced my interest in Russian literature. When I came back and wanted to try to write a novel, basing it in Russia made sense for these reasons.”

As with her first two novels, Arden is faithful to the tales she is drawing from but, like any artist, she weaves her own original tale that surprises and delights the reader. She knows her source material well enough to adapt and change when it is necessary for her own tale and, once more, she is successful. The Winter of the Witch picks up where The Girl in the Tower ended. The reader finds Vasya in the burned ruins of Moscow after having released the great Firebird to save the Grand Prince. Now an angry mob, under the hands of the priest Konstantin Nikonovich, wants to burn her. It’s interesting that the sexual desire he has for Vasya reminded me not of Russian tales, but of Victor Hugo’s the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where Archdeacon Claude Frollo obsessively lusts after Esmerelda. Nikonovich also lusts for power and comfort, so much so he willingly makes a deal with the demon Medved (the Bear).

In a dialogue between Konstantin Nikonovich and Medved, the Bear tells the priest, “There are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark. One man’s monster is another man’s beloved. The wise know that.”

Light and dark. And all of the infinite shades in-between are what make up the tensions and conflicts of this great tale. In many ways, all three novels are all about the struggle between the dying of the Old Ways to the newer beliefs of Christianity as it came to Russia. And if Nikovonich is a poor example, Vasya’s brother Sasha, who loves and wants to protect his sister, but who also fears that she is, indeed, a witch. In an interview with Trisha Ping of Bookpage, “Early in the class (The Russian Mind), we studied Slavic folklore, including household spirits like the domovoi. We also examined the notion that Slavic paganism never really disappeared from the Russian countryside after the arrival of Christianity; rather they coexisted, with some friction, for centuries. I was fascinated by the tensions inherent in such a system, as well as the notion of a complicated magical world interacting so subtly with the real one. I decided that I wanted to explore these notions in the context of a novel. I did my research, as one does, in libraries and online. I have also amassed a small library of obscure academic texts on such topics as medieval Russian sexual mores, magical practices and farming implements.

Katherine Arden deals enough in the familiar to not lose readers but wisely keeps her narrative fresh by allowing Vasya to quest into other magical realms (as with all fairy tales, they each have their own rules and magical inhabitants).  We see this in her conversation with a mushroom spirit:

“What is this place? Vasya asked the mushroom spirit. In her mind, she had begun calling him Ded Grib: Grandfather Mushroom.

He gave her an odd look. “The land between noon and midnight. Between winter and spring. The lake lies at the center. All lands touch, here at the water, and you can step from one to the other.”

A country of magic, such as she had dreamed of.

These new geographies open Arden up to introducing new chyerti (demons) or spirits, like this mushroom-spirit and, of course, the Baba Yaga.

As with the previous novels, this work is filled with Arden’s is dark and lyrical. One loses oneself in the language as much as the story itself. She provides us with flawed characters, especially in the heroine herself.  What I love is, like all great fairy tales, we see that the monsters are not the creatures outside ourselves but so often the ones within ourselves. There is good and bad, light and dark as Medved told the priest, and this provides the struggle within all the characters as they attempt to reconcile themselves to who they truly are, what they truly want, and this is what impacts what is played out as the story builds to the Battle of Kulikovo, which historically many point to as what united Russia. This usage of mythology interwoven with Russian history reminded me a great deal of Valente’s Deathless.

For those who loved Arden’s first two novels, this conclusion will be a deeply satisfying and rewarding one for them. As she reminds us, “Magic is forgetting the world was ever other than you willed it.”