Snow White is a German fairy tale known across much of Europe, the most popular version of which was published in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm in the first edition of their collection Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Following the release of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs animated feature in 1937, the tale took on a whole new level of popularity and is today one of the most famous fairy tales worldwide. While the majority of people today regard it as nothing more than a story for children, with magic, romance and cute dwarfs, the older versions of the story, including that of the Grimms’, with its themes of sexual jealousy, revenge and murder, was incredibly dark and certainly not written with children in mind – except as a warning. These deeper themes in the story have given rise to a significant body of ‘Snow White scholarship’, which seeks to explore the hidden meanings in the fairy tale and place them in some sort of context. Michelle Abate has explored the fact and fantasy of filicide in Snow White, Shuli Barzilai has considered the fairy tale in terms of its being a mother’s story, Vanessa Joosen has highlighted the retellings of Snow White between magic and realism and Steven Jones has given broad consideration to the inherent pitfalls in Snow White scholarship. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is Neil Gaiman’s famous revisionist re-telling of the story, Snow, Glass, Apples, which completely reconceives the fairy tale in a manner more disturbing even than the Grimm version that is best known today.
Although Middle Earth is full of monsters that are highly original, Tolkien also introduces us to some fairly familiar foes: the trolls from The Hobbit, for example, are quite traditional in the way they are depicted. Although it must be said, by the standards of most trolls in mythology and fantasy, the three encountered by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit were mental giants. Bert, William and Tom spoke and understood the tongue of men and had an elementary, if faulty, knowledge of arithmetic. They were, none the less, turned to stone as a result of the quickness of wit of the wizard Gandalf and in this they conformed to myth and legend in more than one way. For the idea that trolls “must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of” is an ancient one, with the god Odin playing the same trick as Gandalf in the Old Norse poem Alvissmal. Elsewhere, again in keeping with Scandinavian trolls, Tolkien tells us that “In their beginning far back in the twilight of Elder Days, these were creatures of dull and lumpish nature and had no more language than beasts”. Like orcs, Tolkien’s trolls were bred by the artifice of the first Dark Lord Morgoth, and were his own twisted version of the noble race of Ents. But trolls were rightly feared, for they were twice the height and bulk of the greatest men, had skin of green scales like armour and they desired most a diet of raw flesh. As if that were not bad enough, by the time of The Lord of the Rings a troll-race not before seen appeared in Middle Earth – one that, unlike the older race of twilight, could even endure the sun.
While most of us have some passing familiarity with the myths of ancient Egypt, Scandinavia and the Classical world, more obscure are the gods and monsters of the Far East. The great world religions founded in West and Central Asia all influenced the indigenous beliefs of East and South-east Asia. However, the host countries tended to make the encroaching deities their own, embracing them within their own mythologies by a process of adaptation and assimilation. China, the so-called ‘Mother Civilisation of the East’, did not view the incoming gods and goddesses as a threat. The immensely stable structure of Chinese society meant that, rather than feeling threatened by outside beliefs, the Chinese were able to modify and absorb outside influences while maintaining their own culture. Elements of Chinese mythology and philosophy have made it into the mainstream consciousness in fragmentary form through films like Big Trouble in Little China and television series like Kung Fu. Most people have heard of the 14th century novel, Journey to the West, which tells how the Monkey King went up to heaven, where he stole the peaches of immortality and incurred the wrath of the gods. What is perhaps less well known is the complex structure underpinning all of these various fables, myths and legends.
Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.
In The Hobbit, the character of Beorn is described as a huge, black-bearded man who wears a coarse wool tunic and is armed with a woodsman’s axe. His peculiar gift is that he is a ‘skin changer': that is, he can assume the appearance of a great black bear when the mood takes him. Whilst, shape-shifting tendencies aside, Beorn appears at first to be a relatively straightforward character from a children’s novel, he exemplifies a mass of complexities and tensions typical of much of Tolkien’s creative output. In naming his character, Tolkien used beorn, an Old English word for bear, which later came to mean man and warrior (with implications of freeman and nobleman in Anglo-Saxon society). It is related to the Scandinavian names Björn (Swedish and Icelandic) and Bjørn (Norwegian and Danish), meaning bear (the word baron is indirectly related to beorn). Beorn also one of many characters in Middle-Earth who are capable of devoting themselves to a just cause when the time is right, while preserving an aura of danger, self-sufficiency and freedom of choice. Other examples of this Tolkien archetype are Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Radagast and even, to some extent, Aragorn. Like Beorn, these individuals are all stewards or guardians, who seem to prefer seclusion in isolated hills or homes and who live or travel apart from the other forces of good, while belonging to the same side. What differentiates Beorn is that, as a skin-changer, he belongs to the specifically pagan world of Norse mythology.
Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
Click to get the January 2015 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly and read my short story The Inn at the Edge of the World.
The dragon Smaug is in many ways the centrepiece of both The Hobbit book and film series – no other character more often dominates covers, calendars and promotional art related to the story. It is no accident that a dragon plays such a prominent role in one of J R R Tolkien’s very first works of fiction – he did, after all, once famously say: “I desired dragons with a profound desire”. For Tolkien’s taste, however, there were too few dragons in ancient literature, indeed by his count only three – the Miðgarðsorm or ‘Worm of Middle-earth’ which was to destroy the god Thor at Ragnarök, the Norse apocalypse; the dragon which the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf fights and kills at the cost of his own life; and Fafnir, who is killed by the Norse hero Sigurd. There are elements of all three of these mythological dragons in Smaug, as well as some entirely of Tolkien’s own making, such as the dragon’s name. Tolkien once noted that Smaug bore as a name the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb smúgan (to squeeze through a hole) – “a low philological jest”, as Tolkien himself put it, from an Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon and Norse.
A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
Puck, the mischievous imp of English folklore, also known as Robin Goodfellow, was immortalized in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The origins of this merry trickster figure are, however, far older and darker. The Old English puca – from which the name Puck is derived – is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in night-time woodlands. The Welsh called him Pwca, which is pronounced the same as his Irish incarnation Phouka, Pooka or Puca but these are far from his only names. Parallel words exist in many ancient languages – Puki in Old Norse, Pukis in the Baltic region and Bucca in Cornish – mostly with the original meaning of a demon, devil or evil and malignant spirit. Indeed, Pouk was a typical medieval term for the devil and the Phouka was sometimes pictured as a frightening creature with the head of an ass. Even the jolly-sounding moniker of Robin Goodfellow alludes to this creature’s more sinister side – Robin itself was a medieval nickname for the devil. How then did such a demonic spirit evolve into the merry sprite of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy?