'Often he regards his shadow or reflection as his soul, or at all events as a vital part of himself, and as such it is necessarily a source of danger to him. For if it is trampled upon, struck, or stabbed, he will feel the injury as if it were done to his person; and if it is detached from him entirely (as he believes it may be) he will die.'
Sir James Frazer, one of the founders of modern anthropology, reporting on beliefs about shadows in The Golden Bough
Shadows aren't quite of this world; tricky, slippery characters that often dance at the edges of sight; our own a part of us that stays strangely apart. For centuries they've been contemplated and captured by artists, philosophers, psychologists and storytellers (who after all must have originally told their tales in front of flickering fires, inviting the shadows to gather and listen).
In George Macdonald's fairy tale 'The Shadows' (first published in Adela Cathcart, 1864) the shadows do gather by the fireside, although their existence is in danger from 'the various sorts of artificial light'. These are shadows who, for all their grotesque cavorting and mimicry (especially on nursery walls), are not really creatures of darkness - they dedicate themselves to getting people to do good.
In Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Shadow' (first published in 1847) we meet fairy tale shadow of an altogether darker nature. Here's a man's shadow who is able to go off and create an autonomous life for himself. The shadow becomes a man and the man becomes a shadow and like the majority of Andersen's tales there is not much chance of a 'happily ever after'.
In 'The Shadow' Andersen's 'learned man' is at first vexed 'not so much because the shadow was gone, but because he knew there was a story of a man without a shadow. All the people at home, in his country, knew this story; and when he returned, and related his own adventures, they would say it was only an imitation; and he had no desire for such things to be said of him.'
The story he's reffering to is the literary fairy tale 'Die wundersame Geschichte von Peter Schlemihl' (The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl) by Adelbert von Chamisso, written in 1813. In it a man gives his shadow to a stranger for a purse of everlasting gold, but without his shadow people fear him, he becomes an outcast afraid to step out in sunlight. It's a fantastic tale, taking in romance, rivalry, ruin and even a pair of seven league boots. Does he get his shadow back? You'll have to read it to see, there's a modern translation from the German available here.
In more recent times Carol Ann Duffy has written a chilling fairy tale about shadows called 'The Stolen Childhood'. One of three tales in a beautiful little book called The Stolen Childhood and other dark fairy tales (Puffin, 2003) the story involves a wicked stepmother who makes an unwise deal with a stranger to get her hands on a pair of magical scissors...
'The stepmother knelt down, silent as poison, and cut along the whole length of the girl's shadow. A breeze blew under it and lifted it gently but the stepmother snatched at it, crumpling it up and stuffing it in her skirt pocket. It felt like the softest silk.'And so the stepmother steals the girl's shadow and with it her youth, leaving the girl with her own 'heavy and sour smelling' shadow. The story is beautifully written and I don't want to spoil it by telling you the ending, instead I urge you to hunt this book down!
The thought of losing my own shadow sets my teeth on edge so I must be fairly attached to it, or it to me, but in case of the worst - what is the best way to stick a shadow back on?
'If he thought at all, but I don't believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near to each other, would join like drops of water; and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed'
Peter Pan (first published in book form in 1911) is perhaps more fantasy than fairy tale but the story certainly contains fairy tale elements (and it's included in the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales so that's good enough for me!) and in case you've forgotten and you're ever in the unfortunate position of having your shadow snapped off by a window and then rolled up and put away in a draw - you need a Wendy to sew it back on.
Shadows have also been harnessed to tell fairy tales. The ancient art of shadow play has a long association with folklore and was the inspiration for Lotte Reiniger's enchanting silhouette fairy tale films. Jan Pieńkowski also uses the silhouette technique to great effect in his illustrations for The Fairy Tales (Puffin, 2005).
Now, if you're ready, and you wish to wander further into the world of shadows (with your own tucked firmly underneath your arm)...
Explore the role of shadows in art in this article from magazine Tate Etc.
There's a fascinating interview with Victor I. Stoichita, author of A Short History of the Shadow (Reaktion, 1997) in Cabinet magazine.
If you're interested in the Jungian interpretation of fairy tales his collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz wrote a book called Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales (A.C.G. Jung Foundation, 1974).
And last but by no means least I highly recommend Marina Warner's brilliant book Phatasmagoria (OUP, 2006) which devotes a chapter to shadow in the course of its exploration of the imagination and its relationship to the supernatural.
The wonderful shadow picture above, titled 'At the Foot of the Bed', is by London-based photographer Tom Elkins, visit his website to see more of his work.