May 29, 2011

Guest Blog: The F-Word (No, Not That One!), By Elizabeth Creith

Editor's Note: The fairy folk, as Elizabeth Creith, guest blogger, ably explains here, are a complicated folk, as likely to help, hurt or ignore humans as do anything else to them. Elizabeth Creith is a writer and editor. You can find her work at Elizabeth Creith's Scriptorium.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men;

from The Fairy Folk By William Allingham

I don't say the f-word. All right, I do – but only in combinations, like fairy tale or fairy godmother. I never use it to refer to the Gentry, the Little People, the Good Folk, the Grey Neighbours, the Others. You know – Them.

They're not the twee little flower-spirits the Victorians imagined, mainly concerned with granting wishes to silly humans. The Folk I know are at best indifferent to us, at worst malevolent, and always dangerous.

Lady Gregory, a friend of the poet Yeats, travelled extensively in Ireland, asking the country people about the Good Folk. What she heard was that when we deal with them, we usually come off second-best. There's a reason for so many euphemistic names for them; it's dangerous to draw their attention.

Lady Gregory heard of changeling children, stolen brides and kidnapped mothers, folk who were "elf-shot" or "away", or suffered from "the stroke" (a blow given by one of the Good Folk), boys who stepped into a circle for a dance or two and returned to find their families and friends long dead.

While some stories begin "There was a man who..." many of them happened to the teller. One woman told of losing two of her children to Them. She saw her daughter after the daughter's death.

"Where are you now, Catherine?" she asked.

"I'm in the forth [an underground dwelling of the Good Folk] beyond," the daughter replied.

These Good Folk are the Seelie Court – the "good guys". They may be tall and beautiful, or smaller than we, ill-dressed beneath the glamour. They're not grotesque, nor particularly malevolent. They simply regard us as we regard animals, as lesser beings whose wants don't matter.

The Unseelie Court are actively malevolent. Nuckelavee, who looks rather like a long-armed centaur, only skinless and showing muscle and veins, hunts humans. Jenny Greenteeth drowns and eats children. Baobhan Sidhe is a bloodsucking female spirit. Redcaps, boggles and goblins, all ill-disposed to people, are also all – well, Them. By saying you-know-what, you're as likely to attract the horrific Nuckelavee as the beautiful Melusine.

You may well ask if I, in the twenty-first century, really believe in the Good Folk.

Let me tell a story from my own family. When my grandparents bought Ballylough, the family farm in Ireland, the woman of the house told my grandmother where to empty her laundry water. In those days before indoor plumbing, the housewife used to pour it in one corner of the farmyard. One day she heard a knock on her door, and found there a little woman in a white blouse, black skirt and red cap.

"Could you please pour your water in the other corner," she asked the astonished housewife, "for where you pour it now, it trickles down my chimney."

The housewife wisely did as she was asked. No point making one of Them angry, even one who looks so much like a little housewife herself. You never know who else is listening.

Briggs, Katharine. A Dictionary of Fairies. Penguin Books, 1977.

Lady Gregory. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. Colin Smythe Gerrards Cross, 1970. Copyright 1920.

May 21, 2011

Guest Post: 'Snow White and the Philosopher's Stone,' By John Patrick Pazdziora

Editor's note: At last, our first guest blog post. We already have many more waiting in the wings, but we are especially glad to be starting with John's work. John has had several contest-winning pieces in EC, and is a doctoral candidate at University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. His outstanding blog, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond is well-worth checking out. Super-scholar that he is, John has provided a list of his cited works, and we've included it at the end of the post. We hope you'll be as challenged and intrigued by this post as we were. Happy reading!

There’s a Jewish saying: "Don’t ask questions of fairy tales." If you’re at all like me, you know that’s pretty hard. Questioning fairy tales is fascinating, certainly for scholars and writers, and for many readers as well.

We like interrogating tales to reveal their subconscious or occluded motives. We like taking them apart and rearranging them, like bits of clockwork on black velvet. We like observing them in social settings, in different styles of manner and dress. And all of these are good things.

But when we question fairy tales, it’s tempting to think the fairy tale has answered.

Consider the strange case of  "Snow White." It’s one of the most famous, even notorious, of fairy tales. You can read some versions of it here and here. Walt Disney read it as a parable of domestic bliss and the bubbling of young love. Neil Gaiman read it as a presentation of domestic abuse and the ravening of a vampire. We’re more likely to recognize Disney’s vision than Gaiman’s—it’s been around longer, for one thing—but how can two savagely different readings possibly be the same fairy tale?

Jack Zipes has suggested that "Snow White" is about female competition (133-136). The locus of the struggle is physical appearance and, by metonymy, erotic appeal of the (step)mother and daughter. Certainly Arthur Rackham’s illustration of the magic mirror suggests that’s what the story is about, as have many other retellings.

But, as my friend irreverently recently asked, what if it isn’t? What happens to the tale if that’s not the point?

There’s a fascinating hint in the first paragraph:

If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame. 

The queen’s wish is for a child that’s black, white, red. That’s the classic color spectrum in literary alchemy.

If you’ve read Harry Potter, you’ve encountered a great example of literary alchemy, though the tradition is hundreds of years old. Here’s a crash introduction.* Each color represents a different phase of the alchemical process, or Great Work as the alchemists called it. Black signifies the nigredo stage, where the lead or base metal is burned, to remove its impurities. White is the second stage, albedo, where the purified matter is washed repeatedly to transmute it into the final stage, rubedo, signified by (you guessed it) red and gold. The beginning of the rubedo is signified by the blossoming of streak of red on the white metal; the metal is put into a container, symbolised by burial or interment in a coffin, until the transmutation is complete. The elements in the metal that were in opposition—fluid and solid, female and male, life and death, and so on—become reconciled; this is called the alchemical marriage.

When the metal reaches this stage, said the alchemists, it possesses the power to transmute all material substance to gold. But alchemists understood their Great Work to be as much psychical and spiritual as material; it involved a personal journey, not just experimenting with metal. It gave the alchemist eternal life. The final product of the Great Work was called "The Philosopher’s Stone" or "The Philosophical Orphan."

What if  "Snow White" is an alchemical tale? The argument would go something like this.

   Snow White is the philosophical orphan, traveling through the three stages. The nigredo is her loss of home and self-identification in the forest, that labyrinthine fairy tale symbol for peril, liminal space, and the transmigration between worlds. The albedo is her time with the seven dwarf's (and the number seven has so much symbolism surrounding it, there’s not enough space to even mention it here). She’s reached an equilibrium, and can be herself without the threat and shadow of the forest. The end of the calm albedo is signified by the arrival of the queen-crone, and specifically an apple that’s half white, half red. Snow White bites the red half and becomes as if dead. So she’s put into a coffin that’s decorated with gold lettering. The philosophical orphan is buried to wait for the completion of the rubedo. Enter a prince—the union of opposites and the alchemical wedding, and the completion of the Great Work.

So, was "Snow White" meant as an alchemical tale? It’s possible. Alchemy is as old as fairy tales. But we’ll probably never know for sure. If it wasn’t intentional, it’s a remarkable coincidence. As G. K. Chesterton notes:

   [T]he more complicated seems the coincidence, the less it can be a coincidence. If snowflakes fell in the shape, say, of the heart of Midlothian, it might be an accident. But if snowflakes fell in the exact shape of the maze at Hampton Court, I think one might call it a miracle. [...] A stick might fit a hole or a stone a hollow by accident. But a key and a lock are both complex. And if a key fits a lock, you know it is the
right key. (ch. VI)

Intention might not even matter. Carl Jung suggests that alchemical symbols are part of our unconscious minds; he claims that people will dream according to alchemical representation even if they know nothing about alchemy (66ff, et al. ). The alchemists and storytellers may have both been drawing on higher archetypes, symbols of transformation and awakening.

Because that, in the end, is what fairy tale seems to be about. Marina Warner calls it metamorphosis (18). Jung calls it alchemy. Chesterton might call it a miracle.

Regardless, "Snow White" is the story of the transformation of an individual from a place of fear and isolation to a place of confidence and happiness. And we are left confronting the change. The story itself is a magic mirror that shows us what we are, are not, and perhaps might dare to be.

Maybe we don’t ask questions of fairy tales because they’re asking questions of us.


*I am indebted to John Granger for introducing me to these concepts, and to Erzebet Yellowboy Carr for affirming their relevance to fairy tales.

Rackham image from

Works Cited

Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. 1908. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995.

Granger, John. The Deathly Hallows Lectures: The Hogwarts Professor Explains Harry's Final Adventure. Allentown, PA: Zossima, 2008.

Jung, Carl. Alchemical Studies. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Warner, Marina. Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self. Oxford:  OUP, 2002.

Zipes, Jack. Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. London: Routledge, 2006.

May 17, 2011

Essential Books About Fairy Tales -- For Grown Ups

As we all know, many fairy tales were not written primarily for children. Some of them are clearly too violent or racy for kids. Yet the sanitized versions of fairy tales, while still entertaining, leave adults without the full story.

It is certainly true that no one owns fairy tales, so cleaning them up for younger readers is as valid as the more recent versions of fairy tales -- some of which are very adult indeed. (Note to would-be submitters to EC: We are aimed at an age 13 and up audience. All work published here is parent friendly.) Anyway, the original, "real" versions of fairy tales are available, as are a huge variety of excellent books by scholars that are fun to read and enlightening. To find our top favorites, see the "10 Favorite Fairy Tale Books" Amazon slide show at left. A few of the books there are aimed at children, but were chosen for their classic status and lovely illustrations. The Uses of Enchantment, by the ever controversial Bruno Bettelheim was chosen for its influential status, even though much of his ideas have been questioned, discredited or damned as plagiarized.

The Amazon widget at the top of our page has even more books about and including fairy tales and I've read all or nearly all of them. And yes, there is nail polish, jewelry, etc., because fairy tales and commerce really are connected. Fairy tales abound with stuff!

However you acquire these books, please do so. They are worth the reading, the joy, the knowledge.

The illustration above is by Adrienne Segur, who illustrated the Golden Book we have included in our favorite book list. The image is from "The Tinder Box,"one of my favorite Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales.

Kate Wolford, Editor