The Sleeping Princess – upcoming gigs

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you might have heard me talking about Red Hoods and Glass Slippers. To put it relatively succinctly, it’s a poetry and storytelling project about fairytales, which invites the audience to see them through the eyes of characters both new and familiar. It’s a project that is constantly growing and changing, but one thing coming out of it is The Sleeping Princess – a poetry show that is effectively “volume one” in a collection of interlinking fables. It’s early days but I’m very proud of it. And you can come and see it for yourself! Gig details below, followed by more information about the show 🙂

Gig number one is part of Bed Time Tales at the Oxford Playhouse (Burton Taylor Studio). It’s Saturday 2nd April, i.e. tomorrow (why yes, I did leave this a little late) – it starts at 7:30pm and you can buy tickets here for £10. I’ll be performing the first 40 minutes of The Sleeping Princess, and you’ll also get to hear amazing storyteller Tori Truslow.

Gig number two is a FREE scratch night featuring me and the inestimable poet Fay Roberts, each doing a show-in-development at the (wheelchair-accessible!) Poetry Café in London at 7:30pm, Thursday 7th April. I’m doing the one-hour version of The Sleeping Princess and Fay will be peforming The Selkie – A Song of Many Waters. You can RSVP to the Facebook event here.

Fay and I will also be putting on The Selkie and The Sleeping Princess together in Oxford (The Albion Beatnik, May 27th) and Cambridge (details TBC), and we plan to bring the shows back to London as well.

If you want to know more about how I approach and work with fairytales, I wrote a blog post about it for the Oxford Playhouse’s website (which I’ll mirror on here once the show has happened). And if you want to know more about The Sleeping Princess and The Selkie – behold, our promotional material!

FBIcon Scratch London April 16

Fairytales tell us a lot about who we were and who we are. Fairytales are encoded secrets, travelling through time. Fairytales aren’t always happily-ever-after, because fairytales are true.

Hel Gurney and Fay Roberts explore two takes on the way we shape myths, and the way myths shape us. Come and enjoy a scratch night of two hour-long shows-in-development at The Poetry Café, London (wheelchair-accessible). Entry is free, with donations taken, and we would love to hear your feedback…

The Sleeping Princess (Hel Robin Gurney)

A fairy curse. A sleeping princess. A kingdom in turmoil. A story you think you know. All actions have a consequence; all magic has a price. Borrow the skins of beloved characters treading unfamiliar paths, and find yourself spellbound.
Subversive storyteller-poet Hel Robin Gurney invites you to immerse yourself in a dark fairytale of love, trauma, and resilience.

The Selkie – A Song of Many Waters (Fay Roberts)

The seal woman’s skin has been stolen, stranding her on a reef of rage and tragedy. Can she find her true home, freeing her voice? Explore love, family, and destiny in the company of mythological creatures.
Fay Roberts (Other Voices, Allographic, Hammer & Tongue) navigates a modern mythological sea voyage of hiraeth, poetry, and music in this haunting solo show.

“If you like poetry and fairytales and being emotionally destroyed, you are going to love this!” – Hel & Fay

ACCESSIBILITY: The Poetry Café has a lift down to the basement, and a disabled toilet. If there’s any other access information you need, please let us know!

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Upcoming events! Poetry at Somerset House, stories at Quiltbag Cabaret

Hello readers!

If you’re wondering where I’ve been – things have been a bit intense lately, and other writing took priority over blogging. I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, here are two events where you can find my work!

Tomorrow, at Somerset House, my poetry will be part of an installation at the Museum of Water’s Midsummer Water Day event. The installation is called the Old Water Hoard, and consists of recordings of Old English poetry, texts, and isolated words and phrases on the theme of water and weather. I was invited to contribute to the Old Water Hoard after impressing an organiser with my Old English and modern English audio piece, The Book Remembers, at the Verse Kraken #2 launch a while ago. I rose to the challenge and put together a new piece called Water Became Bone – a meditation on language, culture and self, layering Anglo-Saxon poetry with modern English translations, original poetry, and an extract from a paper. The Old Water Hoard will be at various “listening stations” throughout the Museum – a sort of literary treasure hunt. 

In the further off future, I’ll be headlining the next Quiltbag Cabaret in Oxford on Friday 11th July. This time, rather than poetry, I’ll be storytelling – so if you’re a fan of feminist fairytales, socialist parables, or you just really like mermaids and monsters, this might be for you.

That’s all for now – but stay tuned for more blogging again soon…

“Frozen” – why I hated it on first watching

[This is the first in a series of three posts about Frozen. I’ve only just seen it, and as someone with a deep and abiding interest in women and their representation within fairytales, I have a lot of thoughts about it. This post discusses my gut reaction – that it’s an absolute failure of a film – and compares it with recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. The second post will look at alternate perspectives on Frozen, examining other ways that it has been read and received by women, queer people, and abuse survivors. The third post will be an exploration of Frozen as it could have been, if the valuable subtexts of the film had been brought out and explored more satisfyingly.]

So, I’ve finally watched Frozen. And… wow. I hated it. Not just because of the shoddy animation or the gaping plot-holes or the poor world-building. (Or the lyrics, with gems like “who knew we had so many plates?”, “don’t know if I’m elated or gassy”, and  “the past is in the past”…) No, what really gets me is the way that despite the way it’s been touted as a progressive and/or feminist film due to the focus on a relationship between sisters, it (in my view) actually way more regressive than any other recent Disney films (and indeed several much older ones).

First off, Dani Colman has written this very detailed examination of why Frozen fails as a progressive film on every count. I really recommend reading it, as it articulates many of the reasons why I found this film deeply unsatisfying, and I’ll be building on some of her points here. (But also, it’s not a perfect article – as I’ll discuss in post #2). Colman writes:

Frozen creates the clever illusion of its own progressiveness by subtly degrading what came before it to make itself look more enlightened by comparison. In doing so, it not only treads upon a rich history of compelling heroines in much better films; it manages to get away with being good enough.

In the rest of the article, she compares Frozen‘s heroines with classic Disney princesses like Jasmine, Ariel, and Mulan – demonstrating that most of these characters have far more agency and personality than either Anna or Elsa. I’m going to focus instead on how Frozen compares to more recent Disney offerings Brave and Tangled. This post contains spoilers for all three!

All three films deal with themes of imprisonment and freedom, the nature of love, and the importance of familial love as well as (or instead of) romantic love. Frozen had the potential to do really interesting things – and the original Andersen story, The Snow Queen, has a host of amazing female characters. Even having abandoned most of the Andersen plot, Frozen could have been brilliant – an look at what enforced separation does to sibling love, of how a difference in power can change relationships, of the ways that women are taught to be silent and still and emotionless, of what it’s like to grow up being abused by well-meaning parents. But at every point where it could have done something interesting or complex, it just… doesn’t. And it’s not enough to say that this is “just a kid’s film, so it doesn’t matter” – I’ve been picking holes in Disney since I was little, so don’t tell me that children don’t notice this stuff! Frozen seems particularly egregious having come after Brave and Tangled, both of which managed to be far more complex and emotionally realistic. (Which is not to say that I think either of these films are perfect – they definitely do have their problems, and those deserve critical engagement as well – but even with the recognition that they are flawed, I still think that Frozen doesn’t measure up even slightly.)

The thrust of my argument is this: Frozen is a failed attempt to re-create what was good about Brave and Tangled.

So – Elsa is locked in her room for most of her life, and Anna is confined to the castle for three years between her parents’ death and her sister “coming of age” so she can become queen. Let’s compare this to Tangled: Rapunzel has been locked up for her whole life as a young girl, and (like Anna) she’s conventionally feminine and a little bit clumsy – but unlike either Elsa or Anna, she has hobbies and interests. In the song “When Will My Life Begin?” we see her baking, reading, knitting, painting, playing music, doing ballet, playing games, and a whole load of other hobbies – and later we learn she’s also been charting stars! She’s smart,  and curious about the world beyond the tower. We see something similar in Brave: while Merida is not locked up per se, she is subject to pressure to remain at home and behave more like a traditional princess. And there’s something else going on here: both Rapunzel and Merida actively fight against the walls within which they’re being kept. We never see any sort of resistance or agency from Anna or Elsa – the closest thing we get to seeing Elsa express any contrarian desires is when she tells her parents not to touch her because she’s afraid she’ll hurt them (and this is after several years of being conditioned to believe that she is dangerous and people should be afraid of her). And Anna – if she loves her sister so much that she’ll ride out into a blizzard to save her without even stopping to put on some warm clothes, I find it hard to believe that she’s spent several years being foiled by a closed door. Sure, we have a montage of Anna knocking forlornly at Elsa’s door as she grows up, but… seriously, she never slipped a note under that door? Never made a rope out of bedsheets and tried to swing in through Elsa’s window? For that matter, did Elsa literally never come out of that room until she came of age? Were there not even any family dinners? Did Anna never have a chance to talk to Elsa about this, or think to ask her parents what on earth had just happened and why the family was suddenly acting as though her sister was a monster? At no point do either Elsa or Anna seem to display curiosity, resourcefulness, or any desire/ability to change things – they both seem to accept their respective fates of being locked in an empty room and locked in a nearly-empty castle with nothing but sadness and resignation. The only way I can make sense of this is if they’re both already seriously hurt and traumatised – which leads me to the next point…

Anna and Elsa’s family situation is highly disturbing, and this is never expressly marked as abusive. Again, let’s break out the Tangled comparison: Mother Gothel keeps Rapunzel in that tower all her life because she wants to exploit the magic properties of Rapunzel’s hair. When we first meet her, Rapunzel has to an extent internalised the idea that she needs to stay in the tower to stay safe, saying “I like it in here, and so do you! Come on, Pascale, it’s not so bad in there”. When we see her interactions with Mother Gothel both in conversation and in the  villain song “Mother Knows Best”, it becomes clear why: because Mother Gothel has been systematically undermining Rapunzel’s confidence in herself. It’s a pretty chilling depiction of emotional abuse, and I am SO GLAD it exists in a popular children’s film, because it’s expressly modelling what abuse can look like – and might, perhaps, help kids better recognise abuse if it happens to them. And then let’s think about the mother/daughter relationship in Brave – in which Elinor’s desire to keep Merida indoors and marry her off stems from a sense of duty and political necessity rather than from selfish or cruel reasons. Elinor begins as a domestic antagonist, but the heart of the movie is about how these two very different women with different priorities come to understand each other, and negotiate a compromise between duty and freedom. It’s fantastic and it made me cry.

Now let’s look at what happens in Frozen. Elsa accidentally hurts Anna when they’re playing – and since it’s a magic wound, instead of going to whatever Arendelle’s equivalent of A&E is, they ride off to find the trolls (who seem to actually understand magic). What happens next is creepy on so many levels. The lead troll does some magic memory-altering on Anna, without getting meaningful consent from her parents – he just does it. He tells Elsa that fear will be her enemy, and then the proceeds to scare the bejeezus out of her with a prophetic light show. And then he tells Elsa that she will need learn to control her powers! Here’s the basic reaction I’d expect from sensible and loving parents:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! Perhaps you could recommend us a magic-user who could teach her how to do this? Like a wizard tutor, or something? Maybe she could stay with you, since you’re clearly a pretty short ride away from our palace, and you seem to know how this magic stuff works? How about some of you come stay in the palace for a bit and keep an eye on her, show her how to control this stuff? Or we could just bring her down for some supervised lessons once a week? Either way, since this girl is the future queen and all, we definitely want to make sure she grows up healthy and stable and in control of her magic – and I mean, just from a practical point of view, having an awesome sorceress queen would probably do wonders in terms of discouraging people from invading our kingdom. Also, thanks for altering our other daughter’s memories to remove the ice-magic stuck in her head – it wasn’t great that you didn’t check with us first, but if that was the only way to save her life, then I trust your magical/medical opinion! But just so you know, once she’s a bit older we’re going to sit her and Elsa down and explain about all of this: because even if Anna didn’t get a say in this happening to her, she has a right to know her history, and we respect her autonomy as a human being.”

But instead we get:

“So, Mr. Troll, what you’re saying is that our daughter has incredible and unexplained magic powers, and she needs to control them so she doesn’t accidentally hurt people again? Right then! I guess what we should do is lock her in an empty room for the rest of her life, keep her as isolated from human contact as possible, actively teach her to fear her powers, and get her to internalise the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ every time her ~emotions~ get out of hand! It’s not like she needs love or intellectual stimulation or compassion or guidance or anything. And as for Anna, well, we’ll just send away pretty much all the palace staff and leave her to wander aimlessly around the castle with no friends, and never explain to her what’s happened, so she grows up feeling that her sister suddenly came to hate her for no reason. That’ll work, right? What could possibly go wrong?”

They lock their daughter up, teach her to repress her powers rather than control them, never ever explain to Anna what on earth is going on, and generally behave in a way that suggests they have no respect for the basic humanity of their children. So far, so fairytale – bad and/or absent parents are a mainstay of the genre. But the thing is, the horrifying way they treat their daughters is never ever coded as abusive. This is a massive step back from Tangled‘s emotionally realistic portrayal of parent/child abuse, or Brave‘s complex exploration of a difficult but basically loving parent/child relationship.

The problems with Frozen‘s portrayal of family don’t end there: while I know that it’s not exactly unheard-of for Disney movies to require suspension of disbelief, when watching Frozen I found it impossible not to poke the cardboard walls. Why? Because the entire plot hinges on a family structure (and for that matter, a governmental structure) that makes no sense. This isn’t as dire a problem as the two I discuss above – independent-heroine-by-numbers and abject failure to acknowledge that the family is abusive as hell – but I think it bears thinking about in the context of a film that has been lauded for elevating ‘true love’ between siblings to the position normally occupied by romantic love. When the king and queen die, what on earth happens to the kingdom? Who is running it? It can’t be that everything just shuts down, because the Duke of Weselton talks about Arendelle as a trading partner. I’d expect there to be someone – an aunt, an uncle, a distant cousin – who is taking the reins until Elsa comes of age and is allowed to be queen. But if there is, we don’t see them. Ever. And it seems pretty likely that there aren’t any, since when Anna runs off after Elsa, she is somehow able to make Hans the temporary regent of her kingdom – and another noble tells him “if anything happens to the princess, you are all Arendelle has left”. (And later, he is seemingly able to convincingly claim the throne on the basis of his verbal account that he and Anna said their marriage vows just before she died in his arms. What?) Furthermore – in all those three years, who was still keeping Anna locked indoors? I can just about believe that Elsa has at this point been sufficiently traumatised that she stays locked up – although again, if Anna loves her sister so much, before the film starts she’s had three years free of parental supervision during which she could have reached out to her – but what’s stopping Anna from going out to see the world, or at least her immediate surroundings? (Also, on the subject of abusive families – Kristoff brings home a female friend, and his adoptive family’s response is to sing a song about how gross and awful he is, but how she can fix him if she marries him? And then tries to trick them into getting married? I just… wow, no.)

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

Who knew that ice magic could also do lipstick and eyeshadow?

I’m also really bothered by what feels like casual misogyny – I love flawed heroines, I honestly do, but I feel like there’s a running theme of women being coded as over-emotional, even hysterical, and incapable of taking command or acting sensibly.  (I’ll go into this in more detail in blog post #2).  There’s also the way that “being free” and “being conventionally sexy” are conflated.  In “Let It Go”, the song in which Elsa finally claims her powers and expresses her individuality, she also gives herself a magical makeover and winds up looking like a classic femme fatale, with a long slinky sequinned split-to-the-thigh dress, dramatic makeup, and a new sexy wiggle in her walk. I am very much in favour of people dressing however they want, and I don’t for a moment think that expressing femininity makes someone unfeminist – but I do feel like this scene is worryingly invested in the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy, as well as the idea that performing femininity/sexiness is inherently liberating (rather than liberation being found in having the choice to do so or not). “Elsa’s become empowered – quick, make her sexy!” For a film that is supposedly progressive, I feel it falls back on a lot of reductive and harmful tropes about women.

The final thing I wanted to talk about is how this fits in with the Disney Princess marketing machine. To quote Colman again:

Throwing the doors open to women with a new generation of intelligent, capable female characters who are not defined by whom they fall in love with is a smart move, and Disney knows it. That’s why Disney has been beating the “More Feminism” drum for years now: not because they believe it, but because the children of millenials are being brought up in homes that champion intelligent, outspoken women, and that’s where the ticket sales are coming from. But Disney has, and has always had, a fine line to tread between breaking new ground, and maintaining the comfort of tradition, or it risks losing the millions in ticket sales and merchandise that comes from the old vanguard.[…]

Whether you loved or hated Frozen, it should be impossible to deny that it is preceded by a rich history of animated films that champion bravery, intelligence, strength and agency in their heroines far more effectively than it does. Yet denying it we are, in droves, and sometime since Frozen’s release the praise heaped upon it reached such a critical mass that it somehow has made us forget that Belle left both home and the Beast’s castle to save her father’s life; that Mulan risked death on the battlefield and execution for treason to protect her family; that Esmeralda chose immolation rather than give herself to a man she despised; that the archetypal Prince Charming hasn’t been seen in a Disney film since The Little Mermaid; and that no Disney heroine except Anna — even Ariel — has begun her story with love as her goal since 1959.

I think this hits the nail on the head: in order for each new Disney princess film to be seen a step forward in terms of awesome heroines, without actually doing something new or revolutionary, it needs to put down the films that came before it. I absolutely don’t think that Disney’s oeuvre is a shining example of feminism, and beyond the lens of gender there are swathes of problems as regards racial stereotyping, investment in the beauty myth, heteronormativity, and so on. This is the two-pronged power of the Disney Princesses merchandising machine: with one hand they flatten out every previous princess into a hyperfeminine, glitter-covered version, appearance-focused iteration of the original character; with the other hand, they sell their newest creation as the most daring, the most independent, the most ground-breaking yet.  Seriously, look at this picture – to take the two most obvious examples, Mulan spends most of the film wearing armour and passing as a boy, yet in Disney Princesses merchandise she’s wearing an even fussier version the type of clothes she hates so much that there’s a song about it; Rapunzel ends the film with short brown hair but is depicted all through the Disney branding with her flowing golden locks… There was some backlash a while ago when a prettied-up version of Merida was added to the ensemble, but again, while Merida was definitely an important step forward in many ways, the objection to the Merida redesign again served to elide all the ways that so many of her predecessors – Mulan, Belle, Tiana, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas… – were themselves “girlified” by the Disney Princesses branding.

disney princesses

And so – Frozen has been sold as, and received as, something new. Is it more feminist just because there are two princesses instead of one – even though neither of them seem to have personalities or interests or consistent psychologies? Is it queerer than usual because the central story is a love story between two women – even though they’re sisters, with a sketched-in relationship that seems based on their both liking snowmen and chocolate? Does it skewer the love-at-first sight trope by undercutting the relationship between Anna and Hans – even though it then goes on to have Anna and Kristoff fall for each other in a similarly short space of time? Well… no. I really don’t think it does. (And again, other Disney films do it better – Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog both do far more interesting things with the idea of what constitutes a princess; Tangled has a lot to say in terms of challenging traditional gender roles (particularly in how it undercuts traditional ideas of masculinity); if you want characters falling in love that isn’t “at first sight” then what about Beauty and the Beast?)  I think that what is happening here is something rather more cynical: that, having seen the success of Brave and Tangled, the two most recent princess movies with resourceful heroines and fresh (or at least, more nuanced) perspectives on love and family, Frozen is an attempt to recreate that success without doing any of the emotional or intellectual work required to create a groundbreaking film (or even just a compelling film). Frozen is Tangled-by-numbers, a shallow and formulaic attempt to cash in on the current enthusiasm for more ‘independent’ heroines.

But wait – there’s more! In the course of writing this blog, I also asked my Facebook friends: if you like Frozen, tell me why? The ensuing discussion was really interesting and I now feel like I understand more about why this film was so well-received by lots of my feminist and queer friends, people whose opinions I respect. However, as this blog post is already well over 3000 words, I’m going to leave this one here – stay tuned for another post soon, which will discuss Frozen in terms of queerness, survivorhood, and the value in having fallible protagonists! (And because I’m a ridiculous human being who apparently has a lot of feelings about women in fairy tales (who knew?), there is also a third post on the way, in which I explore how Frozen could have been a far better movie by bringing out the more interesting things buried in the subtext.)

Magic and mythmaking: (re)writing queer/feminist fairytales

On Saturday I ran a workshop about fairytales at LaDIYfest Sheffield! I had a lot of fun, and all the feedback I’ve had so far has been very positive.

I promised a write-up of the workshop, so here it is! This is for attendees who want to have an easier time of finding some of the texts we discussed, people who couldn’t make it due to the numbers cap, and anyone and everyone else who is interested in queer and/or feminist fairytales.

For most of this post, I’ve endeavoured to capture the flow of conversations in an organic and impressionistic way, rather than trying to follow a strict model of “X said this, and Y replied with that” (aside from anything else, my memory isn’t that good!). This means that the many voices and opinions and questions have been subsumed into a single voice – I hope I’ve done a good job of capturing the tides of conversation, but: attendees, please do let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed, or if there’s a comment or idea you’d like to be specifically attributed to you, and I’ll be very happy to oblige. I haven’t been able to provide citations or sources off the top of my head for some of the things that were discussed, as they came from the group – I’ve done so where I can, but decided to prioritise getting this posted while it’s still fresh.

Comments, additions, and questions are all very welcome – I’d love this to be a living document rather than a static record!

The workshop was attended by 25 people (I raised the initial cap of 15 due to lots of interest and LaDIYfest being even more popular than anticipated). Although it was a child-friendly workshop by request of the LaDIYfest organisers, we ended up with a group of adults. We began with introductions, everyone being invited to share their name, pronoun, and one thing from a fairytale that has stuck with them (for any reason). Responses were very diverse! Many people mentioned Disney – some with fond memories, some citing it as their early encounters with the beauty myth (all the princesses had such amazing hair!) or with the idea that women’s main purpose was heterosexual romance, others remembering moments of agency and resourcefulness displayed by the Disney heroines (such as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, bravely attempting to rescue her father). There were two participants with different memories of a similar story: one remembering that a girl was married by a prince because gems fell from her mouth when she spoke to him (making what she actually said meaningless, and his supposed love for being based entirely on her material worth); the other participant forgot the marriage element and remembered the backstory, in which this girl is rewarded with her gem-speech for being kind to an old woman (in contrast to her two older sisters, who were unkind and so punished by having snakes and toads fall from their mouths).

"Diamonds and Toads", by Carliihde at Deviant Art

“Diamonds and Toads”, by Carliihde at Deviant Art. [Crediting but used without permission; I will take this down if requested by the artist.] I note with interest that all the pictures of this story on my Google Images search showed the “good” daughter with blonde hair and the “bad” daughter with dark hair…

 From these snippets of people’s experiences, we moved to the next stage: what sources do we have for fairytales? Where do we first encounter them, and how do we receive them? Answers from the group: Disney; other films; picture books; being told stories as children (by teachers and relatives); story books. What books do we remember? Which authors can we name? The group came up with these names: Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm brothers, Perrault, Aesop, Neil Gaiman, Terry Jones, Roald Dahl. I noted with interest that these were all men – even though women such as Angela Carter and Emma Donoghue were mentioned in the initial sharing of memories – and led into a talk on the gendering of how we receive fairytales. (Why don’t we remember Marie de France in the same way we remember the Grimms?) While we often think of (for example) the Grimms as ‘sources’ of fairytales, their versions are not ‘pure’ or ‘original’. The stories in Grimm/Perrault are collected from oral tradition: stories often passed from mothers to daughters (consider the term ‘old wives’ tales’!) were written down by men of letters. What we see in these fairytale compendia is a moment where oral traditions become frozen in time – a static snapshot of one particular point in a constantly shifting set of stories. Telling, re-telling, and changing fairytales is intrinsic to oral tradition – as are women’s voices. In this context, then, feminist (re)writing of fairytales can be seen as not simply an intervention, but as participation in and restoration of an old and important element of fairytales, how they work, and what they do. (Fascinating further reading recommendation on this topic – Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers.)

"From the Beast to the Blonde" cover

“From the Beast to the Blonde” cover

How else do fairytales work? What do they do? What is the purpose of a fairytale? Fairytales can be about showing possibilities, and strangeness – a fantastical world intruding on the ‘normal’ world. Changelings and kitchen fairies and gnomes in the woods – ordinary people coming across them.They can be aetiological – that is, providing explanations for things, whether for natural phenomena (like storms), features of the landscape (like an oddly-shaped mountain – could it be a giant, sleeping and turned to stone?), or local folk practices and traditions. They are often a didactic form – stories intended to teach the listener in some way. Fairytales told to children are often warnings against danger – cautionary tales about telling lies (The Boy Who Cried Wolf) or talking to strangers (Little Red Riding Hood), showing extreme and unpleasant consequences. They’re a safe way of demonstrating danger, instilling fear and good behaviour. They allow children to experience risk and excitement without actually experiencing it. More generally they are often about moral conduct – the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. One participant proposed that the two key “good” attributes to possess are cunning and kindness, which I loved as an idea! They’re ways of transmitting moral lessons, which (necessarily) mean they reflect the cultural values of the time. They can also be ways of teaching about the rules of the time – which is different from morals, in that often social rules can be unfair or oppressive, but the listeners are still being taught to negotiate life under them. In this way, some fairytales don’t so much demonstrate a moral as demonstrate the amorality of the social order they’re depicting?

So, if fairytales teach culturally-specific lessons about morality and society, this is another way of thinking about how we can write “our own” fairytales. Many of the lessons of fairytales are ones that we would still broadly support – morals about kindness and acceptance continue to be valuable to us, but as feminists and/or LGBTQI people, we may want to jettison (for example) morals about enforcing appropriate gendered behaviour, or about the importance of heterosexual marriage (whether in the service of social climbing, where a kind shepherd marries a princess; of preserving monarchical order, when marriage takes place between royalty; or of more seemingly-mundane goals such as reproduction or simply the adoption of the ‘correct’ gender roles). (In a discussion about this at the LaDIYfest gig, with a school teacher, we talked about this being a good way to engage children with (re)writing fairytales – by talking about them as being ways to teach people about a belief. She said she’d discussed Frankenstein as a moral tale with her class, and asked them to write their own stories with the same basic moral of “don’t mess with nature” – one of them came up with an ecological fable about dumping waste into the ocean leading to a tidal wave! Fairytales with simple morals such as “girls can do things just as well as boys” or “love is love, no matter who you are” would be good ways of talking about these! (There’s an interesting discussion to be had about the role of children’s books in terms of LGBTQI representation – e.g. books like Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three – but for the moment I’ll settle for just linking to Liz Chapman’s resource list, drawn from her research into this very topic.)

Also on topic of rewriting: we tend to think of fairytales as taking place in an “other” world, a world that is already far from ‘normal’ – a world of wolves and forests and kings and princesses and millers and shepherds, which feels miles away from the majority of contemporary life here in the UK. But these stories, which seem to take place in a mysterious past, were recorded as literary artefacts at a time where these stories were taking place in a mundane present. Especially given the focus we’ve had so far on examples from the Germanic tradition, which was long before the unification of the smaller kingdoms into one country. At the time they were recorded, they were taking place in the contemporary world. Thus, ‘modern’/contemporary fairytales are a completely valid way of doing things. (Another interesting digression: the modern equivalent of fairytales is perhaps the urban legend? Stories passed around through word of mouth, with vague connections to ‘a friend of my aunt’s hairdresser’ or something – close to the reality and the now, but supernatural, strange, sometimes evincing a belief in some form of natural order/justice… And what does the internet mean for this sort of tradition? Stories can be quickly reproduced and disseminated, regardless of how true they are – consider the necessity of Snopes.com, or the “creepypasta” format of horror story … It’s interesting and I’d like to think more about it, but anyway – onwards!)

So, having thought about the ways that fairytales often impart morals and/or behavioural standards at the end, let’s take a closer look at the resolutions we see in fairytales. What does a “happy ending” look like? Is it different for male characters and female characters? One common resolution is marriage, either a commoner marrying “up” or two members of the ruling class marrying each other. With male protagonists, we see a lot of instances where marriage to a rich and/or noble maiden is one part of a wide array of successes: for example, a poor youth who completes a series of challenges set by a king, and in the process is awarded riches, land, and the king’s daughter. In contrast, most female protagonists that we can remember are only offered marriage: while this may involve a rise in social status (e.g. Cinderella marrying a prince), there is no corresponding acquisition of wealth and power (except in a sort of auxiliary way: wealth as a consequence of marriage and power inasmuch as she can influence her husband). Other common resolutions are a long and happy life. Different cultures may have different ideas of what this entails – French versions of fairytales having a stronger emphasis on reproduction, on procreative marriage as the goal rather than marriage which affords higher social status. All these resolutions are to an extent ideological – they are transmitting messages about the place and purpose of women, and about the importance of heteronormative relationships. In making our own fairytales as queer and/or feminist writers, we can engage with these messages about gender and sexuality, subverting or undermining or outright getting rid of them. Other resolutions can be simply about escaping danger – avoiding the troll under the bridge, escaping the wicked witch. Survival is sometimes all a fairytale character can hope for! And then, we have the flipside of the resolutions where the good are rewarded – we have resolutions where the wicked are punished. These punishments can be brutal and extreme – dancing in red-hot shoes until death, being dragged through the streets in a barrel full of spikes, vomiting snakes every time you try to speak. These can be genuinely horrifying – are they meant to scare children into good behaviour, or provide them with a gory thrill, or both? Are these punishments disproportionately meted out to female characters? There seem to be a lot of wicked queens, cruel mothers (or stepmothers), and deceitful/lazy young girls who are punished in these ways – can we think of many (or any?) male characters who are treated in this way?

Moving from gendered resolutions to thinking about women in fairytales more generally –  what female characters have stuck with us? How “active” or “passive” are  these characters? Who are our favourite female fairytale characters? The Snow  Queen is very much about women who act – the little girl Gerda goes on a quest to rescue her male friend from the Snow Queen who has captured him; on the way she is hindered by an old sorceress and helped by a robber girl, and the majority of the other incidental characters are also women. (The new Disney version, Frozen, seems to have changed the story in very significant ways – there have been a variety of responses about the gender politics of this so far, both sceptical and approving.) Different aspects of the Cinderella story came up – while the Disney version (based on the French Cendrillon) has her in a quite passive role, other versions (like the German Aschenputtel) have her being cunning and resourceful, and aided by the spirit of her dead mother. (It’s also worth noting that Aschenputtel doesn’t have the “ugly sisters” – they’re beautiful but cruel!) There is a brilliant analysis/deconstruction/rewriting of this story by Angela Carter called Ashputtle or the Mother’s Ghost, which explores three different versions of the relationships between the dead mother, the stepmother, the sisters, and Cinderella/Ashputtle herself (there’s some discussion of it currently visible on Google Books).

A version of Rumplestiltskin was highlighted as interesting because the female protagonist is displaying hubris – she gets herself into her dilemma by boasting that she is able to spin straw into gold. Is this a fable about putting women in their place? (Having done some checking post-workshop, in the Grimm version it’s the woman’s father who boasts about her skills – but in another Grimm story called The Three Spinners, it’s the mother. The Three Spinners is interesting, because rather than the moral of rewarding hard work and punishing laziness, the girl who hates spinning (and accepts the skilled help of three women who are good at spinning) is rewarded by never needing to spin again! I feel like this story might speak interestingly to our later discussion about politics and labour and solidarity…) Another story mentioned was The Wild Swans, in which the sister’s fortitude and courage saves her eleven brothers. But on the other hand, it’s also about sacrifice and enduring pain, in order to aid male family members – is this just a reinscription of the idea that a woman’s highest purpose is to help the men in her life? (It’s also worth mentioning Andersen’s tendency to write himself into his stories as self-sacrificing female characters – mostly notably in The Little Mermaid, which has been read as an expression of his love for another man.)

A number of Disney stories also got brought up – more about them below! But I found it interesting that there wasn’t much recollection of stories involving women actively going on quests, except for Gerda in The Snow Queen – I remembered East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Girl with the Iron Claws, both of which have women undertaking more traditional heroes’ journeys (and rescuing men!). I also remembered Catherine and Her Destiny, which has the female protagonist journeying for seven years and working for different women while pursued by a cruel (female) anthromorphic Destiny, before eventually, she finds employment with a kind woman whose own Destiny is able to intervene.

A shot from The Wrong Crowd's production of "The Girl with the Iron Claws". Photograph by Steve Ullathorne.

A shot from The Wrong Crowd’s production of “The Girl with the Iron Claws”. Photograph by Steve Ullathorne.

Although there are these stories with cunning and resourceful women, and women going on quests, they seem to be harder for people in this group to call to memory. Does this tell us something about what sort of fairytale gets remembered, transmitted, almost “canonised” by popular media such as Disney movies? I find it useful to think about Marta Wasik’s paper on Disney princesses (from Roles 2013), which she divides into three areas – ‘classic’, with princesses who are often passive and literally immobilised (Sleeping Beauty in her castle, Snow White in her glass coffin); ‘renaissance’, with princesses who are more rebellious and active, but presented as rather more sexualised and still defined primarily by their romantic interests (Ariel, Jasmine); and ‘modern’, with princesses who are considerably more active agents in their fates, and more like young girls than young women, both in terms of their appearance and their attitude to romance (Rapunzel, Merida).

Christine Gritmon's satirical take on "Beauty and the Beast", from TheFW.com

Christine Gritmon’s satirical take on “Beauty and the Beast”, from TheFW.com

Disney films kept on coming up as we discussed female characters, and so it was definitely time to move on to the next point of discussion: modern fairytales. How do they use / re-frame / alter / respond to the images and ideology of the originals? (Can we even talk about about fairytales as having ‘originals’? Does that erase the continuity of oral tradition, or is an acknowledgement that modern responses to / versions of fairytales frequently do use specific written sources rather than drawing on a general oral tradition?) Belle in Beauty and the Beast was suggested as a good example: mostly interested in reading (and unashamed of this), and she’s brave enough to attempt to rescue her father – and she’s given the opportunity to get to know her eventual partner, rather than falling into the ‘love at first sight’ trope. This can be seen as improvement on the original source – the moral of which was less “beauty is found within” and more “if you’re stuck with an abusive husband, be kind and patient and eventually you can change him”, which is considerably more damaging! – or it can be seen as a whitewashing of it (after all, the Beast still does treat Belle poorly).

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was cited as positive – Tiana is hard-working, talented, and independent; her dream is to run her own restaurant. But does the moral of the story undermine this, as she learns a lesson about not being single-mindedly ambitious and having time for love as well? Is this about balancing ambition with emotion, or is it more just about limiting women’s ambition? And how does her race come into this – is it somehow more acceptable for a Disney princess to have a working-class background if she’s a woman of colour? She does get her restaurant in the end, but partly due to the money from her new partner… The Princess and the Frog also has what I read as an interesting comment on the “Disney princess” marketing machine in the character Charlotte – a rich white girl who owns innumerable pink princess dresses and is obsessed with finding romance.

In general, Disney seems to be becoming more and more self-reflexive – Enchanted is also a self-parody with regards to the idea of the “Disney princess”, and both Brave and Tangled seem invested in subverting the traditional “princess” role. Brave and Tangled are also more invested in relationships between women than previous Disney films (and perhaps this also applies to Tiana, who has her friend Charlotte) – specifically, there is a strong focus on mother/daughter relationships. Marta Wasik has spoken about how in Disney, the parental figure with whom the princess character most “identifies” is the father – he may be bumbling or disciplinarian or otherwise difficult to deal with (consider the fathers of Jasmine, Ariel, Belle, and Pocahontas) but he is always “recuperated” in some way: in contrast, the mother (or stepmother) figure is usually either completely absent (Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas) or in some way “false” or “malevolent” (Snow White, Cinderella). Tangled explores this abjected mother figure in ways which are, on the one hand, important – various people have commented that the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel is a scarily accurate portrayal of abusive relationships, and having this depiction in a movie for children might help them to recognise abuse and name abuse in their own lives – but on the other hand, continues to feed this image of the Disney princess’ mother as absent and/or malicious (Rapunzel’s real mother is far away, and we see no interaction between them until the end of the film). Brave is a film focused almost entirely on the relationship between a mother and daughter (as well as the rejection of romance by the latter, and the consequences this has) – Merida’s mother Elinor being turned into a beast literalises the difficulty they have communicating with each other, and their eventual reconciliation and understanding (with the use of sign language during a speech!) is, in my opinion, the emotional climax of the film. (Themes of motherhood are, of course, also important in fairytales more generally, but their specific examples in Disney is where the conversation went!)

What modern fairytales aside from Disney are doing interesting things with gender? The Wizard of Oz – and indeed the spin-off story Wicked – both focus on interactions between female characters, and Dorothy is the hero of a quest. A few participants remembered a story in which a princess rescues a sleeping prince from a tower, and then decides she doesn’t want to marry him because he is too lazy. I think this could be one of the stories from a book called The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairytales, which was an expressly feminist collection of fairytales for children that was published in the late 70s. It might also have been from the collection Don’t Bet On The Prince (edited by fairytale expert Jack Zipes, with contributions from Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood). Other suggestions were Mary Poppins and the work of Philip Pullman (particularly His Dark Materials and The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, both of which feature capable heroines) – but at this point, it was time to move the conversation to the next stage: considering the process of (re)writing fairytales.

So – modern fairytales are not necessarily written with the intention of making some kind of ideological intervention, although they usually do end up reflecting the values of the author in some way. If we’re talking about deliberately creating works which are feminist and/or queer, then (and I take this idea from a talk by Sophia Morgan-Swinhoe) there are two broadly-defined ways of going about it: deconstruction or reconstruction. That is to say, ‘deconstruction’ entails exposing the patriarchal and/or heteronormative and/or cisnormative elements at the heart of the tale and bringing them to the fore in a way that makes them unavoidable – for example, the many retellings of Little Red Riding Hood that emphasis the nature of the wolf (which is frequently read as a metaphor for a sexually predatory man – see Zipes’ The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood for a fascinating analysis of how this tale interacts with rape culture and ideas about sexuality). Whereas ‘reconstruction’ involves using the tropes, motifs, structure, and even stock characters/stories of fairytales, but building them into something which is at odds with patriarchal or cis/hetero-normative ideologies – for example, The Practical Princess tales discussed above.

At this point, I asked the group what they’d like to do with the remaining time – continue with discussion, or move on to some writing of their own? As the group was bigger than I’d initially planned for, and I’d wanted to make sure that as many people as possible had space and opportunity to contribute to the discussion, there was not as much time left for writing as I’d intended. I offered some A4 prints of a Josef Madlener series of postcards based on German folklore as sources of inspiration – including a wild-haired man with glowing eyes (Rübezahl), and a fairy riding an appaloosa unicorn to a mountain stream (Die Bergfee). The group split into two – one taking the pictures and throwing ideas around about what they might write, the other continuing with a facilitated discussion about rewritten fairytales more generally. The following is an account of the second one – I’d really love to hear details from the group focused on actively rewriting!

How about the political dimension of fairytales? Many fairytales can be seen as individualist – dealing with the exceptions, people who transcend the social order, the poor third sons of millers who become dukes and princes through their bravery, the goose girls who become ladies and princesses through their kindness. We linked this to the idea of the carnivalesque –  are the rags-to-riches fairytales a contained way of upending the status quo, in such a way as to satisfy and pacify people at the bottom of the social order by highlighting these successes as possible? But the carnivalesque’s contained forms of resistance can also have revolutionary potential – giving people a taste for freedom, a spark or springboard from which to begin more sustained disruption and dismantling of social hierarchies. If rags-to-riches tales are individualist, what might a collectivist fairytale look like? What might an anarchist or anti-capitalist fairytale look like? How the Steel was Tempered was suggested as an example – written with an expressly communist ideology and framing the hero’s success in terms of the greater good. Another example was The Mouse that Made the Butter, a story of two mice who fall into a pail of milk: one sees that there is no way to climb out, so gives up and drowns; the other continues to stay afloat and swim vigorously for as long as possible, and the motion of the swimming churns the milk into buttter so the mouse can at last clamber out. (A cursory Google search didn’t find me a source in any of the old collections, but I did find this, credited to ‘an American newspaper’.) This valorisation of persistence in the face of seeming impossibility, and of struggle and resistence, might provide an idea for what a socialist or collectivist fairytale might look like. (I have tried my hand at an anti-capitalist fairytale – it’s called The Boy Who Ran With Wolves, and it’s about youth and cruelty and exploitation. I think it needs some more refining before I read it in public, though!) Perhaps fairytales are able to universalise stories of struggle and resistance in a way that makes them more accessible? The power of telling our own stories and having them heard is vital and can be agents of political change and awareness – one example brought up was the writing and art of Palestinian activist Shahd Abusalama.

What about fairytales as escapism? It was suggested that there’s a sense in which it’s necessary for them to be portraying things which are generally unachievable – because otherwise they lose their escapist, fantastical quality. On the other hand, they can’t be considered purely escapist, because of their aforementioned qualities as didactic forms, moral forms. There has been comment (somewhere; possibly in relation to Angela Carter?) to the effect that fairytales were “the pornography of their day” – a voyeuristic way of accessing sex and violence, which also continues to be (safely?) contained. But certainly some fairytales are purely about little moments of comedy or wonder – one example I’ve read recently is a very short story in Anna Altmann’s collection of traditional German fairytales. A man is driving his coach down a narrow road through the forest, and sounding his horn to alert anyone who might be on the road – but his horn is so cold that it can’t make a sound. He tries in vain to warm it up by playing as many songs as he can remember on it, but still nothing comes out. When he finally arrives at his destination, he takes his horn and hangs it up indoors. As it slowly warms up, it sounds several blasts and then plays every song he played, in the same order: the story concludes by saying that all the songs had frozen inside the horn, and when they thawed out they filled the house with music. There’s no moral, no lesson – just a little brush with the fantastical in everyday life (and it becomes even more magical when we remember that this story was told centuries before the invention of sound-recording technology!)

It was at this point that our time ran out, but here are some other questions I would have liked to consider.

Which fairytales speak to (or can be brought into dialogue with) lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex and queer understandings of self? Of the world? Which fairytales do you feel are most ‘ripe’ for queering? Or are they all fair game? As a genderqueer person I would have loved to further explore what sort of spaces for transgender and/or genderqueer perspectives can be carved within the domain of fairytales, which is a genre often invested in normative gender roles. (I have written a number of queer fairytales myself at this point – The Prince Who Loved A Monster and The Girl and the Mermaid are probably the queerest of my finished ones, although The Artist and the Bird has a protagonist who is never gendered in the narrative (and neither is their lover). I would also very much recommend Emma Donoghue’s book Kissing the Witch and The Mechanisms’ albums Once Upon A Time (In Space) to anyone looking for queer fairytales!)

How are fairytales racialised? Fairytales from the Germanic traditions we’ve been discussing seem particularly invested in a beauty standard that is very much about white womanhood (pale skin, and often golden hair). What might a race-critical (re)telling of Snow White or The Goose Girl look like? (In some versions of the Goose Girl, the pale skin and golden hair of the “true” princess are a sign of her royalty contrasted with her imposter servant who is supposed to be dark and ugly – a very problematic construct.) Does the word “fairytale” necessarily invoke this early European tradition? What sort of terms govern the discourse around fairytales in a more global setting? Is it erasing of non-European cultures to talk about “fairytales” when meaning only this European tradition, or is applying this term cross-culturally an act of imperialism? Or is it more complex than that? How have modern versions of fairytales, such as the Disney movies, engaged (or failed to engage) with race? What sort of racial dynamics get constructed? Tiana is the first black Disney princess – how does her portrayal compare with that of the other princesses of colour, Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocanhontas? How about the reception of these characters?

Can/should we define Disney fairytales as “reworkings” of fairytales? Or are they too conservative/sanitised to count? Is this a meaningless semantic difference?  Does something need to be subversive to be a “reworking”, or should it just be different? What do we think of the marketing of Disney’s female main characters under the “Disney princesses” umbrella? What about the backlash when Merida was “crowned” an official “Disney princess”, losing her bow and gaining a considerably more feminised appearance in the process? What sort of composite text is the ABC/Disney-owned series Once Upon A Time – particularly given that the character Mulan has been revealed to be bisexual? Would depiction of a queer woman of colour be possible in a mainstream Disney film – and if not, what makes Once Upon A Time different? Why are queer lives/sexualities not seen as child-appropriate? (And what (if anything) does it mean, with regards to a hierarchy of “acceptable” queerness, that Mulan has been written as a bi woman rather than a trans man or transmasculine person? Anecdotally, I know a number of people who read Mulan as trans, citing not just Mulan spending most of the film living as male, but the words of the song “Reflection“) In terms of non-Disney visual media – what about the trajectory of the Shrek franchise – has it lost its edge?

This blog entry has already reached quite a mammoth length, so I’ll end it here for now – but I’ll hopefully be posting some more things of interest soon, including a more organised list of interesting resources.

In the writ(h)ing tentacles of the Verse Kraken: fairytales, the Tempest, writing on skin

(Sorry for the title – I couldn’t resist…)

So, a lot has been going on for me lately, but in this blog I’m going to write about one exciting thing in particular – Verse Kraken.

Verse Kraken describes itself as a ‘journal of hybrid art’, and the first issue was launched on Thursday at an event in London. The editors, Tori Truslow and Claire Trévien also organised a three-day residential writing retreat, at which I had an absolutely amazing time (and wrote an incredible amount of fairytales).

So – first off – if you want to read the first issue of Verse Kraken, the online edition is here. Each issue collects responses to three ‘spurs’: in this instance, a silent film version of The Tempest, a short fairytale about a girl transformed into a fish, and a photograph of the heavily-tattooed Maud Wagner. Collaboration and hybrid forms are encouraged, and the use of spurs rather than a single theme allows a lot of variety (translation and adaptation are amazing things for creativity!) while also retaining some amount of cohesion. My own submission – a visual poem about how bodies and skin can be ‘read’ (and misread), inspired by the Wagner photograph – didn’t make the cut, but considering the high quality of the magazine, I don’t feel bad about that. (Although if anyone can think of another publication it might work for, please drop me a line!) At the launch, we also got to see the offline edition – rather than a traditional magazine format, it’s a little box of treasures, with text and image individually presented as tiny booklets and prints, and a CD with the audiovisual contributions. It’s a lovely way of organising the pieces – like the online hypertextual version, it allows the reader to browse without having a particular order dictated.

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

Dana Bubulj and me, with our ephemeral tattoos (and a rather nice shadow effect).

The launch event featured readings from the first issue, as well as some more interactive elements. James Webster offered temporary tattoos with kraken-themed fragments of poetry on them, which proved immensely popular by the end of the evening – see attached photo of me and Dana Bubulj showing off our newly-decorated skin! (I’m currently really interested in the poetics of skin, and writing-on-skin and art-on-skin as ways of changing how the body is read, so this was an unexpected treat for me! The temporary tattoo is still around, and last night at the FWSA Conference 2013 (where I was performing with Lashings) I had a few people wondering whether the words across my chest were ‘real’ or not! I’m sorry to have missed Claire O’Callaghan’s paper at the conference, as it sounded like it had interesting things to say about tattoos as ‘challenge’/ ‘provocation’ with regards to the male gaze… But anyway, I think a post about skin is something for another time!) The Verse Kraken launch also held an ‘ekphrastic poetry/art challenge’ with a physical copy of the first issue as a prize: audience members were invited to treat the readings as ‘spurs’ of their own, and spend the interval creating responses to them in a different form. I was very pleased to win this, with my response to James Webster and Dana Bubulj’s ‘Bound’ (a curse-poem about the imprisonment of Sycorax, based of course on the Tempest spur). For posterity, here’s the piece of five-minute flash-fiction that won me a box of kraken treasure:

My father said, “don’t go out at night. The wild woods on this isle would set you shrieking. The trees there whisper, tendril-torn, gnarled like ancient flesh. In one of them a witch sleeps.”

My father said, “the howling sobbing child you think you see is but a wraith. He is the substance of your bad dreams. But still, upon this isle, dreams may have teeth. Stay safe. Stay in the cave.”

My father said, “no need to touch the books. They are but dusty-dry sheafs of words that have nothing to tell you. Your grubby hands might stain them; and besides, they are not yours to read. I may show you some pictures if you are very good.”

My father said, “dear girl, if nothing else, you will be safe.”

All the words I knew were the ones he had stuffed into my mouth. But my dreams beyond language dragged me from my bed, our cave, the safe side of the isle. I awoke scrabbling at the roots of a crooked tree. My fingers ran with blood – nails torn, the bark bleeding too. In speech without words, the witch was calling me, and I would come.

I whispered to the knotted trunk, “I am here. Teach me.”

I didn’t give it a title at the time, but retroactively I think ‘Miranda’s Dream’ works as well as anything else. Like Webster, I’m very interested in the backstory of The Tempest – probably even more interested in it that the contents of the actual play! During my MA year I wrote a 15-minute script (in iambic pentameter!) which explored that backstory – it was going to be put on as part of the ‘Shakespearian Shorts’ show put on by the university drama society, but unfortunately cast illness prevented this from happening. The Tempest is definitely something I want to come back to, though – I think that looking at the interactions between Prospero/Miranda/Caliban/Ariel are really fruitful for thinking about the divide-and-conquer methods of kyriarchy. I’m very excited by Sophie Mayer and Jacqueline Wright’s film project, The Storm, which is coming out of their Verse Kraken piece ‘How To Curse’ – a lesbian Caliban! (Oh, and while we’re talking about female Calibans, here’s another recommendation: Kate Tempest, ‘What We Came After’. Kate Tempest is one of the first slam poets I ever saw, and I adore her work. This video is less loud and raw and ragged than her live performances – qualities which I absolutely love – but the poem remains incredible.)

So, now onto the other exciting Verse Kraken thing – the writer’s retreat. It was the first creative retreat I’d been on, and it was perfect. After a week containing my last days officially working on All About Trans, the debut performance of Fanny Whittington at the Oxford Fringe, speaking at ‘Being Ourselves’, and some high-intensity personal stuff – well, spending three days living in a quiet farmhouse with a small group of creative people was exactly what I needed. It was a perfect mixture of relaxing and hard-working: expressly having no job except from writing seems to be something that really works for me, so I’ll definitely be making an effort to set aside days/weekends again in future. The surroundings were utterly beautiful, the pool was surprisingly conducive to creativity (we all did a lot of thinking about mermaids…), and there was (in my opinion) exactly the right balance between structured workshop time and free time to relax or engage with our own projects. The workshops were very creative, encouraging us to engage with different senses, media, and sources – and there was also a weekend-long project that paired us randomly to work on collaborations. (I worked on a short and spooky screenplay with Jacqueline Wright, of the aforementioned lesbian Caliban project!) I’m unsure how much detail to go into about the workshops – I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who might go on a future one! – but basically, it felt like the equivalent of a full MOT for my writing-brain, with its focus on unlocking as many different ways of being creative as possible.

I think the best thing that I’ve taken away from this retreat is the idea that I don’t need to just wait for inspiration to strike – it doesn’t need to be primarily bursts of late-night manic-creativity where I need to write this amazing idea down now now now – but rather, there’s a tonne of enjoyable ways of getting myself into the right mindset for writing other than those bolt-from-the-blue moments, and that inspiration can be taken from unlikely sources. Or perhaps, the best thing I’ve taken is the reminder that I can write passably good things very quickly – I hadn’t really written poetry or fiction on a tight time limit for years, and those moments of being put under time pressure in the workshops resulted in some things that I’m really quite proud of. (Had it not been for these workshops, I’m not sure how confident I would have been in my ability to write flash-fiction at the launch!)

While I don’t normally post my poetry online, I’m going to make an exception for this next one. In Claire’s workshop on form, we were asked to spend 10 minutes transposing a poem from one form to another. From the poems we were given, I chose Eaven Boland’s long free-verse poem ‘Amber’ – it’s a beautiful autumnal poem about mourning and loss, and it’s readable online at The Atlantic magazine – and adapted it into sonnet form.

This plastic gold which grieving trees once wept,

which I now hold, which in its heart is holding

the feathers, leaves, and seeds which have long slept:

is honeyed sunlight, slow-dripped and enfolding.

What reason knows: the dead have left the living.

Those who have passed shall not be seen again.

Clean gulps of air – the sky, bright and forgiving –

our meetings here have moved from ‘now’ to ‘then’.

Yet in the flawed translucence of the amber,

the ornament that you once passed to me –

the life that froze, the insects, vines that clamber –

all that which breathed and moved is there to see.

Though you are absent from this fine September,

I hold you as in amber, and remember.

Other fruit of the workshops included more poetry of various kinds, a map of my childhood imagination (that was a fun workshop!), some fragments of a short story, and the seed of an idea that became another mermaid-focused fairytale. Unlike ‘The Girl and the Mermaid’, this one – I’m calling it ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ – is much more of a direct reply to (and deconstruction of) the famous Andersen tale, as well as being about embodiment and the often-coercive nature of gender roles. All of my free writing-time went on the fairytale collection – as well as ‘The Mermaid’s Wish’ I wrote two more stories (plus the collaboration with Jacqueline, which (given its subject) may well end up in the collection too). A bit of polishing after the retreat and I think they’re done – my fairytales project is growing, and I’m really excited about it.

So, basically – many thanks to Claire and Tori for their awesome work on Verse Kraken, which has been challenging and inspiring me (and many others) to new creative heights. Long may its inky tentacles continue to ensnare us. 😉

Fairytales, feminism, and my own project.

Last week, I arrived in Brighton at 1am on a train severely delayed by ‘extreme weather conditions’ (everyone from outside the UK, feel free to laugh at our public transport!) and forged my way through the ankle-height-and-still-falling snow to meet my friend Carla. To my surprise, she said I’d brought that night’s weather on us – before going on to explain: “In Germany, when it’s snowing, we say Frau Holle is shaking out her bedsheets. Frau Holle is the same as Hel.”

This lovely mythographic tidbit (which also ties in quite well with my previous post about my name) was an entirely appropriate end to the day. Earlier that evening I had been at the talk on “Feminism and Fairytales” from Sophia Morgan-Swinhoe, organised by KCL FemSoc. (As I said a while ago, I’m ridiculously proud of how far KCL’s feminist community has come, and I’ve ended up taking a sort of grandparental interest in their events…)

It was a genuinely fascinating talk, covering familiar and unfamiliar ground – with interesting information also coming from the audience that packed out the seminar room. While I won’t attempt to reproduce my notes in full, here are some of the points from the lecture (provided with Sophia’s permission!):

– The written versions of fairytales we have often came from female oral storytellers, but transcribed (and often adapted) by literary gentlemen who went into communities to ‘bring back’ stories. Some of the storytellers were fiercely protective of their stories: Sophia mentioned an account in which a woman refused to give up her story to the Grimms, who then paid a child to visit her and memorise it for them.

– The seeming disjunct between the female origin of most fairytales and the sexism we see in them is in part attributable to the men who edited and prepared them for the printed word; additionally, many of the stories can be seen as a guide to coping with pre-existing patriarchal structures, rather than necessarily endorsing them. For this point, Sophia particularly noted the stories of Marie de France, which showed a preoccupation with forced and unhappy marriages.

– The designation of fairytales as ‘for children’ was first effected by Andrew Lang, a Victorian who collected numerous anthologies of ‘Fairy Books’. (I discuss Lang’s influence on my childhood – as well as fairytales, gender, and queerness more generally – in my article “On Fairies and Marriage” in the first issue of False Moustache magazine.

– Patricia Duncker has described the fairytale form to be inflexibly sexist and ultimately conservative. Sophia disagrees (as do I!) – while today where we seem to have ‘retold’ fairytales everywhere (from TV series Once Upon a Time to last year’s two Snow White films to the latest hilarious schlock piece Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters…), there have always been subversions: in the old oral accounts, in the aforementioned Marie de France, and in Victorian writing. Apparently that last one was because fairytales were deemed a ‘safe’ thing for women to write about – which then allowed them to slip extra things beneath notice. (Carla tells me a similar thing happened with East German film – fairytales were designated politically ‘safe’ subjects, which resulted in the creation of some wonderful films: apparently the Cinderella of Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel is a skilled huntress who repeatedly bests the prince, and whose respect he has to earn.)

– Finally – and leading in to the other purpose of this post – Sophia discussed two principles of rewriting fairytales: deconstruction and demolition that exposes what’s at the heart of it, or rebuilding and reclaiming the elements to create something new. On the latter point, she quoted Barthes on myth: “the best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn…” The talk – and ensuing discussion – then turned to discussing modern revisions and re-visionings of fairytales: my notes from this section are probably worth another blog entry in themselves, so I’ll leave that for now.

The discussion of writing within the fairytale form – as deconstruction, or as reclamation – got me thinking about what I’m doing with my own fairytales project. In the Q&A after the talk I mentioned to the room that I was writing feminist fairy tales of my own. I realise I haven’t actually yet discussed on this blog what I’m doing – or trying to do – with these stories.

A little context: I read ‘The Prince Who Loved A Monster’ at Transpose last year, and it went down very well – so far, that’s the only one I’ve read aloud publicly, but I would love to start taking my fairy tales to similar events. I’ve been writing more and more, and thus far I’m honoured by the high praise from people who have seen them.

I’ve variously described them as ‘queer’, ‘alternative’, ‘modern’, ‘political’, ‘feminist’, and ‘dark’ fairytales. None of those are quite right – they seem either to imply a more overtly didactic approach than I’m taking, or a sense of belonging to the traditions of gritty urban fantasy or fairytales that have been ‘updated’ or ‘retold’. The other day someone used the term ‘fairytales for our times’, which I quite liked, although I wouldn’t really think of them as being particularly ‘of the zeitgest’: if they’re ‘of’ anything, I expect it’s ‘queer/feminist subculture’.

So what are they? Well. For a start, they’re new stories. That’s not to put down the tradition of retelling fairytales – if you’ve caught me at one of my more reflective poetry gigs then you’ll perhaps know that translation, adaptation, and transformation of myth and folklore is something that I utterly love doing. I’m a great fan of Angela Carter’s (often brutal and sexual) stories built upon ‘extracting the latent content’ of traditional fairytales; Emma Donoghue’s (often fantastically queer) metaphorisations of existing fairytales; and if we’re talking extremely modern versions, The Mechanisms’ transposition of fairytale characters into a dystopian intergalactic war. But – so far – that’s not really what I’m doing with the fairytales collection.

What I’m trying to do is write totally new stories – ones which aren’t obviously deconstructions of any one specific fairytale, while being still very much in dialogue with the existing tradition. (And to be clear – I don’t think that this is some new thing that I’ve invented. Hell, what’s the fantasy genre if not new stories in dialogue with a mythic tradition? But still – writing simultaneously within and against a tradition is amazing, and important, and something I want to keep feeding with my own work.) The fairytales I’ve written so far share common elements with traditional fairytales – important themes like love and morality and sacrifice, motifs like magic and bodily transformation, settings that are both familiar and alien, now and not-now, here and not-here. Stylistically, they’re quite diverse: some in the recitative style of oral fairy tales, some more like the written iterations, some poetry, some prose that’s more ‘modern’ sounding. Perhaps most crucially, they’re informed by my understanding of the world, which is a queer, feminist, and broadly left-wing* understanding. It isn’t my intention to be polemical with them as such – there’s nothing fun about feeling like an author is shouting at you, unless the shouting is itself the point** – but given that the fairytale is to some extent an intrinsically didactic form, and that art cannot help but reflect the artist in some way, this world-view certainly comes through. So – political, yet not polemical? I don’t think I can do much better to explain what I mean than quote myself from that False Moustache article – because despite feeling acutely aware of that article’s flaws (with hindsight of over a year!), it still works as a manifesto for this endeavour:

Looking through my diary from earlier that year, I found this scribbled at the end of a rant about stereotypes and identity: “WE NEED NEW MYTHS. OUR OWN ONES.”

And whether that ‘we’ means women, or feminists, or queers, or kinksters, or polyamorists, or anyone else who lives on the borderlands of heteropatriarchal society – yes, yes we do.We need to tell our own stories and watch them ascend through culture until they displace the old patterns that reproduce power and violence and damaging gender-norms. We need new templates that give precedent and permission to whole kaleidoscopes of genders and sexualities and relationship structures and ways of being in the world. We need fairytales of our own, that teach about the world as it is, but also that give us hope to build it better.

*I say ‘broadly’ because I don’t currently subscribe to any one particular strain of left-wing thought, and I don’t expect I will do until I’ve done considerably more reading in this area.
** See my ‘shouty’ poetry, for example…