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Faire Game

11 Nov

Renaissance Faires have become increasingly popular the world around, often establishing themselves as annual events in specific locations. From jousts to feasts, plays to magic shows, from dancers and musicians to fortune-tellers and artisans, today’s Faire-goers can find any number of events and people to catch their interest and spark their imagination. Countless Renaissance Faires  throughout the world are perfect settings for experiences of a fantastical nature – here you can see legions of players in all their regalia, fighting in jousts, singing to fair maidens, hawking their wares and so on. Many Renaissance Faires are set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, as this period has been generally considered to correspond to the flowering of the English Renaissance. Some are set earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII, or in other countries, such as France, and some are set outside the era of the Renaissance; these may include earlier medieval periods (including Vikings), or later periods, such as 17th-/18th-century pirates. Some engage in deliberate time travel by encouraging participants to wear costumes representing several eras in a broad time period. Renaissance Faires (or RenFaires for short) encourage visitors to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation – many even welcome fantasy elements such as wizards and elves!

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The Art of Charles Vess

14 Oct

Charles Vess is an American fantasy and comics artist who has specialized in the illustration of myths and fairy tales. His influences include British “Golden Age” book illustrator Arthur Rackham, Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, and comic-strip artist Hal Foster, among others. Charles Vess has been drawing ever since he could hold a crayon. Working in his studio in downtown Abingdon, Virginia, Charles Vess adds a little bit of magic back into the mundane world, drawing pixies, swamp things, goth spirits and fantastical forests. If you’re a comics or fantasy fan, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the works of Charles Vess, an award-winning artist and illustrator.  His collaborations with authors Neil Gaiman and Charles de Lint, as well as his cover art for Marvel and DC have gained him a passionate following across the world. His award-winning work has graced covers and pages from numerous comic book publishers including The Books of Magic, Sandman and Swamp Thing from DC Comics, as well as Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. He currently concentrates on book illustration, where he continues to win praise and accolades for his unique style. The ultimate testament to his talent came when Vess shared the prestigious World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with Neil Gaiman in 1991 for their collaboration on The Sandman #19, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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A Touch of Frost

14 Dec

Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, snow, sleet, winter, and freezing cold. He is sometimes described or depicted with paint brush and bucket colouring the autumnal foliage red, yellow, brown, and orange. Sometimes he is portrayed as a dangerous giant but, starting in late 19th century literature, more developed characterizations of Jack Frost depict him as a sprite-like character, sometimes appearing as a sinister mischief maker or as a hero. This mischievous sprite is traditionally said to leave the frosty, fern-like patterns on windows on cold winter mornings (window frost or fern frost) and nipping the extremities in cold weather. Over time, however, Jack Frost has become far less prevalent in the modern world due to the advance of double-glazing, but he remains a well-known figure in popular culture. He is a variant of Old Man Winter who is similarly held responsible for frosty weather, nipping the nose and toes in such weather, colouring the foliage in autumn, and leaving fern-like patterns on cold windows in winter. However, he also resembles other similar spirits of winter from around the world, including the Japanese Yuki-onna, Grandfather Frost in Russia and Mother Holle in Germany.

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The Fantasy World of Christmas

17 Dec

It’s that time of year again, and it’s hard to think about the holidays, particularly Christmas, without thinking of fantasy. It is particularly interesting to note just how many famous fantasy novels – particularly for children – are set during the festive period. The Dark is Rising, The Snow Spider and The Children of Green Knowe are all examples that come to mind immediately, but there are many others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whilst not set at Christmas specifically, features a suitably seasonal winter wonderland and even boasts an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself. Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) also feels like a seasonal novel, even if Christmas was quite literally the last thing on the author’s mind when he was writing it. There are also a number of more adult fantasy novels that make use of festive motifs, often inverting them in new and often anarchic ways. Examples of the latter include Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Then there are timeless classics like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, which are neither entirely for adults nor completely for children, but fall into that strange twilight realm that separates the two worlds. What makes Christmas such a popular setting for children’s fantasy novels can perhaps be attributed to a number of things. The essential yuletide story of Jesus’ birth is full of fantastical elements, from the angels to the star to the three Magi. Moving to the secular (or perhaps pagan) side of things, Santa Claus is nothing but fantastical – flying reindeer, elves (which rather resemble gnomes), a fat man fitting down a chimney, and so on. Then there’s perhaps the most famous novel about Christmas, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is of course full of spirits. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Christmas continues to be explored by fantasy writers. The myths and legends of Christmas provide a rich source of inspiration for new tales, the season can be mined for its emotion and themes, and perhaps for its strange and wonderful mix of energies.

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Fantasy Masterworks: the founders of fantasy

6 Dec

The birth of fantasy literature (as distinct from myths and fairy tales, which have on some level always been with us) has often proved somewhat difficult to pin down. Whilst the general public may regard the genre as having originated with the publication of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950’s, fantasy literature has in many ways existed for perhaps hundreds of years before this. It is in the 17th century that we can find the first critical awareness of the separate existence of a genre of ‘fantasy’, so here I am not talking about earlier fictions about the fantastical, such as The Odyssey, Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Before the reading public was introduced to the alternate world of Middle Earth, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard used the secondary world settings of Hyperborea, Poseidonis, Averoigne and Zothique for their heroic fantasy tales. Before them, fantastical creatures and other worlds appeared in the writings of William Hope Hodgson, most memorably The House on the Borderland (1908). Going back even earlier, the Victorian writer Lord Dunsany, who began his authorial career in the 1890s, was responsible for two major works – The Book of Wonders and The King of Elfland’s Daughter – that were an important influence on Tolkien and many of those who came after him. But can the birth of fantasy as a literary genre be traced back even earlier than this? Who were the founders of fantasy literature?

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The Light Fantastic

11 Oct

This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.

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Snow, Glass, Apples

12 Jul

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.

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Winter’s Tale

14 Dec

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.

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Puck of Pook’s Hill

22 Nov

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?

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Thomas the Rhymer

1 Nov

Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, Thomas Learmont and True Thomas, may or may not have been a Scottish poet and prophet who lived between 1220 and 1297. I say ‘may’ because in many ways Thomas is as much myth as man. He is mentioned in the chartulary (1294) of the Trinity House of Soltra as having inherited lands in Erceldoune, a Berwickshire village now known as Earlston. He is said to have predicted the death of Alexander III, king of Scotland, and the battle of Bannockburn, as well as being the traditional source of many (fabricated) oracles, one of which ‘foretold’ the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. He is also the reputed author of the poem Tristrem, based on the romance of Tristan and Isolde, which no less an authority than Sir Walter Scott considered genuine (it probably in fact emanated from a French source). What Thomas is best known for, however, is the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, included by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802), which tells of his visit to the land of faerie and his imprisonment there by a fey enchantress. In popular lore he was often coupled with Merlin and other British seers. An elusive, inspiring figure, Thomas the Rhymer slipped in and out of the Otherworld, creating new myths and legends that have only grown in the telling in the many centuries since his seeming ‘death’. He is also the probable source of the legend of Tam Lin.

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