Thank you for visiting the cupboard. I now have a new blog here.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas everyone

and very best winter wishes.
See you in 2010.
Claire x

ps there's still time to enter the New Fairy Tales competition, all the details you'll need are here.

Monday 21 December 2009

Queens of snow and ice

When I was little I could see two hills from my bedroom window and I was convinced that the White Witch from the Narnia books lived between them (I also spent a lot of time trying to get through the back of wardrobes). I wasn't scared of her - I wanted to find a way to visit her. There's something about cold queens, ice queens that has always fascinated me. When Edmund first meets the White Witch, who has imposed eternal winter (without Christmas) on Narnia, we are told 'Her face was white - not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.'

Her entrance, in a sleigh, is so similar to Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Snow Queen' (1845) that it seems impossible that Lewis was not influenced by the earlier story. Though unlike the White Witch the Snow Queen is actually made of ice:
'This snow-flake grew larger and larger, till at last it became the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice—shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.'
Andersen's Snow Queen sits in her palace on a frozen lake which she calls 'The Mirror of Reason' and so, cold and barren, she embodies Andersen's ideas about reason and science. But he also created another ice woman - 'The Ice Maiden' (1861) - who he uses for the opposite role - she represents the forces of nature and is the enemy of reason, although she also has to have what she wants...
'Ice Maiden—the queen of the glaciers. It is she whose mighty power can crush the traveller to death, and arrest the flowing river in its course. She is also a child of the air, and with the swiftness of the chamois she can reach the snow-covered mountain tops, where the boldest mountaineer has to cut footsteps in the ice to ascend. She will sail on a frail pine-twig over the raging torrents beneath, and spring lightly from one iceberg to another, with her long, snow-white hair flowing around her, and her dark-green robe glittering like the waters of the deep Swiss lakes. “Mine is the power to seize and crush,” she cried. “Once a beautiful boy was stolen from me by man,—a boy whom I had kissed, but had not kissed to death. He is again among mankind, and tends the goats on the mountains. He is always climbing higher and higher, far away from all others, but not from me. He is mine'
'The Ice Maiden' was inspired by the death of Andersen's father, which he talks about in his autobiography The True Story of my Life:
"He is dead," said my mother, addressing it; "thou needest not call him. The ice maiden has fetched him."

I understood what she meant. I recollected that, in the winter before, when our window panes were frozen, my father pointed to them and showed us a figure as that of a maiden with outstretched arms. "She is come to fetch me," said he, in jest. And now, when he lay dead on the bed, my mother remembered this, and it occupied my thoughts also.'

Snegurochka, a woman made of snow, rather than ice, appears in Russian fairy tales; in one variant, 'The Snow Maiden', she is fashioned from snow by an old childless couple, and in the Russian festive tradition Snegurochka is the granddaughter and assistant of Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, the Russian equivalent of Father Christmas (you'll find lots of lovely illustrations of her in a post on A Polar Bear's Tale). In contrast to the cold women I've mentioned above the Snow Maiden is kindlier, and made to suffer by others, and hers is not a happy ending because snow melts too easily.

Ice is hard, sharp and clear; it offers an illusion of permanence - it reminds us of glass. It is this last similarity that A.S. Byatt has played on to wonderful effect in the fairy tale 'Cold', from her collection Elementals. In the tale, Fiammarosa, a princess descended from an icewoman, is docile and doughy when kept in the warmth, but she is enlivened by the cold, and once she discovers this she escapes the palace at night to dance in the snow...
'And one night, as she moved, she found that her whole body was encased in a transparent, crackling skin of ice, that broke into spiderweb-fine veined sheets as she danced, and then reformed. The sensation of this double skin was delicious. She had frozen eyelashes and saw the world through an ice-lens'
Yet she falls in love with Sasan, a desert prince, wooed by his amazingly intricate glass sculptures. She sees the resemblance between glass and ice but she knows nothing of the dangerous heat that glass must be formed in.

Byatt has said the tale is about her relationship to writing, and in her essay 'Ice, Snow, Glass' in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall she says that even as a girl she knew that 'there was something secretly good, illicitly desirable, about the ice hills and glass barriers.' She later says:
'The frozen stony women became my images of choosing the perfection of the work, rejecting (so it seemed to me then, though I have done my best to keep my apple and swallow it) the imposed biological cycle, blood, kiss, roses, birth, death and the hungry generations.'
Fiammarosa also finds a compromise, although this has to be within the confines of a chilled palace in the heart of a mountain, at the edge of the desert kingdom:
'And if Fiammarosa was sometimes lonely in her glass palace, and sometimes wished both that Sasan would come more often, and that she could roam amongst fjords and ice-fells, this was not unusual, for no one has everything they desire. But she was resourceful and hopeful, and made a study of the vegetation of the Sasanian snow-line, and a further study of which plants could thrive in mountain air under glass windows, and corresponded - at long intervals - with authorities all over the world on these matters.'
It seems there is a choice for ice queens, who think, as Fiammarosa does at first, that there is 'more life in coldness. In solitude. Inside a crackling skin of protective ice'. They can stay out in the cold, or, take the risk of melting a little, but either way happiness comes and goes in flurries, just like the snow.

A few other icy paths to travel...
The Snow Queen in a beautiful digitised copy of Stories from Hans Andersen, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.
A lovely digitised copy of The Ice Maiden.
The Snow Queen, a poem by Jeannine Hall Gailey from the JOMA archives.
This week is Snow Queen week on the SurLaLune blog and Heidi Anne Heiner will be featuring several of the adaptations of the tale.

Thank you to Graham Dean and Louise Dean for the fantastic photographs!

Sunday 20 December 2009

What happened to Cinderella?

There was a new Cinderella story in yesterday's Guardian by Man Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel, with lovely illustrations by Posy Simmonds.

'Cinderella in Autumn' is an intriguing look at life for Cinderella 20 years after the wedding. The story is shot through with references to our times - Cinderella is stalked by paparazzi, her remaining stepsister is hoping the Tories get in, and the prince runs a scheme for young people involving white water rafting that 'brings out your potential and fits you for a destiny'. And we discover that the Prince has always had more of a relationship with her shoes than with Cinderella herself: 'She would see him, in absent moments, caressing the glass heel, which would seem to grow higher under his fingertips.'

I'm not going to say too much more because it's a good read, and I don't want to spoil it, but I do like the way Mantel has used the story to comment on our fame obsessed culture and the depressing fact that, for some girls, marrying a prince (or sleeping with a golfer) might still be thought of as the best route to happiness.

Monday 14 December 2009

Grimm Tales

I went to see Grimm Tales at Manchester's Library Theatre last week and it was fantastic! Energetically performed and deliciously dark - it was great to see the Grimm's tales getting an outing with the grim bits left in.

First performed in 1994 at the Young Vic, the play was adapted from the Grimm's tales by Carol Ann Duffy and dramatised by Tim Supple. This production has been directed for the Library Theatre by Rachel O'Riordan and is engagingly performed by eight actors, dressed like a raggedy troupe of storytellers, who dance, act, make music and tell the tales with relish.

One of the things I really enjoyed was the eclectic selection of tales; there was a real mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I also thought the inclusion of Ashputtel and The Lady and the Lion worked well as people are usually more familiar with their French literary predecessors, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

Here are the Grimm's tales that are used in the show in versions that are available online:

Hansel and Gretel (here I've linked to a page that gives translations of both the 1812 and 1857 versions - which makes for very interesting reading)
The Golden Goose
Iron Hans
The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage
The Lady and the Lion (also known as The Singing, Springing Lark)
Little Red Cap

I'd also really recommend Carol Ann Duffy's book Rumpelstiltskin and other Grimm Tales (1999) which includes her versions of all of the above (apart from The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage), and many more, and is a delight to read.

There's an interview with Duffy on the Library Theatre website, in which she talks about how she went about retelling the tales.

I've also written a review of the show for a site called Artsphere here.

Grimm Tales is on at The Library Theatre until 23rd January - get there if you can!

Monday 7 December 2009

Moss Witch by Sara Maitland

I just wanted to draw your attention to a wonderful story that is on the shortlist for the BBC National Short Story Award and currently available to listen to online, or download, as a podcast.

'Moss Witch' is set in a remote tract of ancient woodland in Western Scotland and involves an encounter between a young bryologist (his hair, 'the colour of winter killed bracken') and a Moss Witch (her face, 'carved with long wrinkles running up and down her forehead and cheeks'). The story is beautifully read by Hannah Gordon and I'm not going to give anything else away because I don't want to spoil it, you will just have to listen to it. Even better, listen to it and buy the book it's published in too (details below).

There is something so magical about moss; I grew up in a house beside a wood, and even in the dead of winter, when empty branches let through so much stark grey sky, and the air is bitterly cold, there is a softness to the wood where the ground is carpeted, and the trees clothed, in moss. I'm sure moss softens sounds too, creating a special hush and adding a sense of otherworldliness to the places where it thrives and hides. 'Moss Witch' captures this perfectly.

Author Sara Maitland, a writer of novels, short stories and non-fiction, is no stranger to writing fairy tale and folklore inspired fiction (see her two most recent collections Far North & Other Dark Tales and On Becoming a Fairy Godmother). She is also currently working on a book about fairy stories and forests.

'Moss Witch' is published in When it Changed, an anthology edited by Geoff Ryman, and published by the brilliant Comma Press, a Manchester based independent publisher who have a talent for bringing wonderful books into being (I've read two of their other books this year Under the Dam, by David Constantine and Stone Tree, by Gyrðir Elíasson, which if you love haunting, well-crafted short fiction I'd highly recommend).

When it Changed is the result of a collaboration between writers and scientists 'Composed collaboratively – through a series of visits and conversations between leading authors and practicing scientists – it offers fictionalised glimpses into the far corners of current research'. Maitland effortlessly combines the scientific detail, I imagine she gleaned from her scientist, with magical prose.

I urge you to listen to 'Moss Witch' when you get a quiet moment. I've only really discovered the delight of listening to audio stories this year, and I find that especially when my eyes are too tired to read, but I'm still longing for a story to help me divide work from sleep, they are the perfect accompaniment to a bath (be sure to cleverly wrap your MP3 player though - I've already lost one to steam damage!).

You can download or listen to 'Moss Witch' and the four other finalists here.

The winner will be announced live from the awards ceremony tonight at 7.15pm on BBC Radio 4's Front Row.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Sara Maitland!

The photograph is of a tree in the woods by the house I grew up in.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Marina Warner podcast

Marina Warner's recent lecture ‘Figures in the Carpet: Magic and the 1001 Nights’, which I blogged about here, is now available as a podcast.

If, like me, you love books of hers, such as From the Beast to the Blonde and Phantasmagoria, then you'll really enjoy this (and if you haven't read those books you definitely should!). Warner has a wonderful way of bringing together all kinds of fascinating tidbits from the realms of history, culture and myth, and exploring the connections between them in an engaging and enlightening way.

In this lecture she examines the magic of the flying carpet, from its earliest association with Solomon, through its appearances in the Nights, and in its ongoing influence as a 'metaphor activated as fact'. She explores human fantasies of flight, and some of the other domestic flying vehicles of folklore (including beds and sofas), before settling on Freud's couch and the importance of its own 'magic carpet'.

You can listen to or download the podcast from the Queen Mary, University of London website here.

Photograph by Elke Bock 2003

Fundraising exhibition for The House of Fairy Tales