Thursday, 1 September 2016
Guest Review by Penny Dolan: SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES, Reflections on Fairy Tales, by Katherine Langrish
Penny Dolan works as a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on the History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and also on The Cranky Laptop Writes, her personal blog. For more, see www.pennydolan.com
I’ve followed Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, Katherine Langrish’s folk and fairy tale blog, since she began it back in 2009. She chose the title - a story warning of difficulties waiting on the long journey ahead - as an apt phrase for setting out on her blogging adventure, but word spread and the blog became both well-respected and successful.
Yet blogs are ephemeral things and, as Langrish says, “Day by day, week, by week, the posts disappear from view like falling leaves and who goes looking for them again?”
However, Langrish has collected some of her on-screen reflections and offers them, with a richness and a pleasing randomness, within the paperback pages of Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, so one can go looking again. The chapters, revised and developed, still keep the light and friendly tone of the original posts; reading the paperback feels rather like listening to the author in conversation with you, and that is a good thing.
Katherine Langrish, a children’s author “by trade and vocation”, describes a childhood filled with Andrew Lang’s Colour Fairy Books, the Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm’s and such tales and understanding that similar stories occur across a variety of voices and cultures, both high and low.
As she explains in the Introduction: “the field of fairy stories, legend, folktales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere, boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows in to the hedge from the cultivated crops nearby and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once . . .”
The book is arranged in three parts. In the first, ON FAIRY TALES, she muses on topics such as ill-fated bargains made with fairy brides, the significance of colour within folk tales and our human need for dragons, as well as the useful magic of such labour-saving objects as porridge pots. I very much welcomed her sound, spirited argument on behalf of fairy-tale heroines, whose actions “tell us to be active, to use our wits, to be undaunted”, even as - through stories of enchanted youths like Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin, and others - she opens up a fairyland that is not filled with dancing children but a cold Otherworld one door away from hell.
In the second section, REFLECTIONS OF SIMPLE TALES, Langrish looks more deeply into single tales. Her essay on Briar Rose steps past the sleeping princess, and in to “stopped time” and the beauty of that “whole little jewelled world frozen and forgotten.” I was particularly interested, as an occasional storyteller, in Langrish’s long pondering on The Juniper Tree. What makes this story “tellable” to older children, she feels, is that - despite murder and cannibalism – the horror is balanced by innocence and hope. In other chapters, she describes her thoughts as she traces stories through oral records, fragments of text or literary versions and adaptation, whether a rambling
tale or 18th & 19th Century collectors work on the enigmatic
Great Selchie of Sule Skerry ballad. She also reveals the relationship between this
work and her need to understand the deep, emotional heart of a story when
writing her novels for children: Troll
Fell, Troll Mill, Troll Blood , Dark Angels and Forsaken. County Mayo
In the third section, Katherine Langrish uses her FOLK TALES section to reflect on a variety of themes and beliefs, from the wisdom of fools and simpletons to homely hobs and fairies. She writes of transformations, of pale “white ladies” and also about ghostly apparitions that just are, “happenings” and encounters without any plot or story. She looks into our relationship with water, suggesting that many legends and stories suggest echoes of ancient beliefs in water goddesses and offerings of “drowned” tributes.
Finally, with the end of the book, comes HAPPILY EVER AFTER, and little need to say more or to explain. With “once upon a time”, she says, the storyteller alerted the audience and now all is done. Ritual words of ending show that the teller is not pausing for a twist or reversal of fortune but mark that the time of the tale is over, even if - through the closing phrases Langrish offers – one is suggesting that none of it was true.
I found SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES a most thoughtful and personal guide to the world of folk and fairy stories and, to me and maybe to others, a wise reminder of tales that need re-reading and - through the footnotes and bibliography - references to follow up. Her defence of such simple stories is sturdy, advising the reader that “Fairy stories are not to be appreciated as a novel. There is no building up of character’s inner lives”, and quoting C.S. Lewis’s views on the simplicity of such narratives: “To the good reader’s imagination, such statements of bare facts are often the most evocative of all.”
I want to finish with three points. The first is that, although I know Katherine, I had already bought a copy of this paperback book for myself, well before writing this review. The second is to celebrate the fact that a new publishing house, The Greystones Press, set up by Mary Hoffman & Steve Barber, chose to publish SEVEN MILES OF STEEL THISTLES, and finally to add that Katherine Langrish’s distinctive and beautiful writing style made reading this book a pleasure.
And - this time truly – not a word of a lie!