bluebeard. mr fox. and harald silkenhair.

an anti-wednesay post

West of the MoonA Word from Mr Pond: I’m delighted to welcome my friend and colleague Katherine Langrish to Paradoxes. Katherine, as you may already know, has been journeying across the blogsphere a virtual book tour for her new epic fantasy, West of the Moon (HarperCollins, 2011).

I’m half way through my copy, and I love it. Just enough scary, just enough thrill, just enough balance of darkness and hope. A cracking good tale. Look for a review here in the near future. And you have a chance to win a free copy: concurrent to this post, I’m running a giveaway over at The Hog’s Head, and there’s plenty of time to join the fun.

Katherine’s visiting us for anti-wednesday, and is discussing some of the anti-tale elements of her work—notably the anti-heroic anti-hero who appears as a particularly unpleasant antagonist.

Bluebeard. Mr Fox. And Harald Silkenhair.
by Katherine Langrish

First of all – and I feel quite cheerful about saying this – trying to define the anti-tale is pretty much like trying to catch your own shadow. You’ll have fun, but you won’t succeed. (Or if by some nursery fireside magic you do, don’t try and stick it to yourself with anything as slippery as soap; get a little girl to sew it to you with teeny tiny stitches and a sharp steel needle.)

Of course the ‘anti-tale’ can be a useful term: ‘subverting, satirizing or re-imagining the traditional tale’; but what that means depends on what we all think ‘traditional’ includes. And excludes. It’s best to look at the whole thing out of the corner of your eye while pretending to be absorbed in something else.

In ‘Bluebeard,’ the heroine is told never to enter the forbidden chamber. She disobeys, discovers the bloodied corpses of Bluebeard’s former disobedient wives, gets blood on the key, and awaits Bluebeard’s return in passive terror, throwing herself at his feet and pleading for life – or at least for time to say her prayers – during which she asks her sister to climb the tower and look for the arrival of her brothers. ‘Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?’ The ‘happy ending’ comes when her brothers arrive in time to prevent her murder and kill Bluebeard himself instead.

About as traditional as they come, yes? Passive, slightly stupid heroine, endangered by her female curiosity, rescued by males?

So I suppose Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) would be the sophisticated, adult, complex anti-tale version. Here a young woman marries a rich man she does not love, who turns out to be keen on sadistic pornography. When she too investigates the room she’s been told to avoid, the male hero (the blind piano-tuner who loves her) is unable to save her, and with a final twist it is her mother who arrives and shoots the Marquis dead. Although the heroine is still infantilised, at least you can claim the mature woman triumphs. Female power at last!

Yes, but now let’s look at the English fairytale ‘Mr Fox.’ Here the heroine Lady Mary’s female curiosity takes her into the woods looking for the castle which her betrothed suitor Mr Fox is so inexplicably reluctant to show her. (Perhaps she’s already a little suspicious?) She finds the deserted castle with its increasingly disturbing carved mottoes: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold/Lest that thy heart’s blood should run cold’ – and discovers the bloody chamber. On the point of escape, she sees Mr Fox returning to the castle at the head of a band of robbers, dragging along an unconscious woman. She witnesses Mr Fox lopping off the woman’s finger in an attempt to get at a ring. The finger springs into the air and falls where Lady Mary is hiding. Mr Fox searches but cannot find it, so he goes on up to the bloody chamber and Lady Mary gets away safe. So far, so good – she’s rescued herself without the need for any males.

But there’s more. Next day when Mr Fox arrives at her town house to pay his court, Lady Mary accuses him of the murders by the method of retelling the entire story as a dream. As the tension builds, Mr Fox continually denies the truth: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so!’ – until she flings the finger in his face with the words, ‘It is so and it was so! Here’s the finger and ring I have to show!’ Upon this signal, her father and brothers rise ‘and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces’—not Lady Mary’s rescuers, but her agents.

‘Mr Fox’ is a story I’ve told aloud on many occasions to schoolchildren, and it never fails to grip. I love the way Lady Mary is completely in control of herself and her narrative. Her curiosity and suspicion – going to find the castle – saves her, rather than endangers her. She rescues herself. And gets her revenge in one of the neatest reversals of any fairytale I’ve ever read. For me, this is a much stronger anti-tale than Carter’s ‘Bloody Chamber. And yet it is a traditional fairytale.

But I suppose you could categorise ‘Bluebeard’ itself as an anti-tale – if set against a ‘marriage as the happy ending’ story like Cinderella…

Now that we’re all totally confused about what an anti-tale is, although of course equally sure we will know one if we see one, I’m wondering how my own fiction compares. All my books so far have their roots in folklore and fairytales. ‘West of the Moon,’ published earlier this month, is the (revised) omnibus edition of my three ‘Troll’ titles, set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, and incorporating any number of folkloric motifs, fairytale scenarios, and fantasy themes, many of them inverted.

Thus my hero, Peer Ulfsson (name borrowed from the Norwegian folk hero Peer Gynt), is an orphan, living with harsh relatives who ill-treat him: a sort of Cinderella figure, only a boy, not a girl. Where Hilde, the heroine of the tale, is outgoing, confident and adventurous – a Lady Mary, if you like – Peer is an anxious, self-doubting, highly-strung but determined individual. Furthermore, he has no particular skills (other than being good at carpentry): he cannot do magic, or understand the languages of birds; he has no magical tokens or rings or weaponry. Like a many a folk hero, all he has is good intentions and a good heart.

I was reading a lot of the very unfairytalelike Icelandic sagas while writing this book, which happened also to coincide with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, so the age-old human tradition of trying to solve problems by violence was inevitably at the forefront of my mind. In the sagas, although we see the beginnings of lawsuits and compensation claims, much of the time these rapidly break down into swift killings. Thus Hrafnkel kills Einar for riding the forbidden horse Freyfaxi; Egil Skallagrimsson is a killer from the age of six; Grettir the Strong is an outlaw and a killer; Thorfinn Karlsefni massacres nine ‘Skraelings’ (Native Americans) while they sleep in the shelter of their beached canoes, and so on.

Well, it seems to me that the sagas are anti-tales, in their very laconic presentation of these dramatic events. They show us the violence, they show us the results: usually more violence. We are not supposed to get excited about the courage of the men involved. These sagas don’t attempt to work up our emotions. We are left to ponder the waste and futility of it all.

Fantasy heroes tend to be handsome guys with swords, but the sagas show the very unromantic daylight truth about living in a world full of heroes with swords. (Or guns. Or weapons of mass destruction.) I started to wonder how my hero Peer would fare if he met a Grettir, an Egil, or a Hrafnkel.

Enter Harald Silkenhair: handsome, young, a charismatic psychopathic berserker: not a nice guy. And the thing about Harald is that other men really can’t help admiring him. He’s brave – ridiculously brave. He’s witty. He’s unkind. He’s feared. He can make you feel really small, he can make other people laugh at you, so you’d better keep on his good side… but of course that’s hard to do: the Haralds of this world are always ready to turn on you if you show any weakness, and so you end up copying their behaviour, trying to fit in. That’s the danger. That’s why they always have a pack of followers.

So what’s Peer going to do?

That’s what I wrote my book to find out.

19 thoughts on “bluebeard. mr fox. and harald silkenhair.

  1. Wonderfully inspiring, Katherine. On an introduction to storytelling weekend a few years back, Ben Haggarty gave us all a wonder tale to learn and tell, mine was Fitcher’s Bird. She’s more proactive and brave in this version? Setting up the trick and disguising herself as a weird bird in order to escape. Ooo, you’re making me want to do more storytelling, thanks!

  2. Fascinating to read about some of the influences that have fed into your books. I love it that Per is pretty ordinary – I think there’s a lot to be said for celebrating the heroism of the ordinary person! As for charismatic bad guys – it’s not just in the sagas that they star, is it? Look at Heathcliff, the Devil in Paradise Lost – oh, there’s any number of them. What is so fascinating? Is it the struggle between the different sides of them – the unpredictability – that keeps the drama level high? Or perhaps it’s just that they get all the best lines!

  3. This is a fascinating post, Katherine! I am very fond of the Bluebeard story and when I wrote my version of it, for a book called Beauty and the Beast and other stories, I made sure to include it. The illustration that accompanies that story, by Louise Brierley, is absolutely CHILLING! Out of print now alas, but maybe available to look at in some libraries.

  4. Your villains sounds wonderful and the dynamic between Harald and Peer appears to be electrifying, terrifying and fraught with tension, all wonderful elements in an adventure story. By the way, wonderful choice of names for him. Silkenhair does not sound evil in the slightest but more macabre when matched with his deeds.

  5. Thanks for reminding me. “Mr Fox” is almost my own favourite tale just because of the strength and attitude of Lady Mary. I always imagine Mary’s brothers enjoying carousing, playing cards and joking with the charming & enigmatic Mr Fox so very much that they don’t bother to look any further. She’s only their sister, after all? Laughter is a good weapon.

    Your wonderful Harald Silkenhair sounds as though he uses some of that charm to get what he wants. Have been waiting for this trilogy to come out, so I can read the whole story in one go – and I love the trilogy’s title.

  6. “Mr. Fox” is one of my star-turn storytelling turns. Did you know that Isak Dinesen (whom I love even more than Angela Carter) took “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold. . .” as her personal motto?

    Thanks for being. . .well. . you, Dora. Insightful, scrutable, and bold.


  7. Norse legends, shadowy creatures and epic heroes? Count me in! Nipping to Amazon to order this now!

  8. This is a fabulous piece, Katherine. Intelligent, informed and wise. I am going in search of your books now.

    PS My son Reuben is a carpenter. I often think that come the Apocalypse he’d be a good man to have on your side. I like the idea of a hero with no magic gifts except what he holds to in his heart.

  9. Bluebeard was always the most terrifying story in my book of fairy tales when I was small. And so the one I always read, of course… I’ve been trying to rewrite it for years. It takes some coming to grips with. But I’ll take another look in the light of Mr Fox – thank you, Kath!

  10. Great post! I absolutely love Angela Carter’s re-telling of the Bluebeard tale and obliquely paid homage in my book Pirates! which features a Bluebeard type villian and a ruby necklace. I also love ‘Mr Fox’, ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’ She is a superb heroine.

  11. Pingback: Mr. Fox, Bluebeard, The Robber Bridegroom, and the Anti-Tale (or) A Sort of Response to Katherine Langrish | Irreverently

  12. Thanks for such a great conversation, everyone. If I can comment on Katherine’s post myself, I have to say that I find this very useful in terms of anti-tale. There’s something innately challenging and counter-cultural, against the reigning dictates of fashion, surely, in suggesting that a ‘traditional’ tale is more subversive than the ‘anti-tale.’ Perhaps anti-tale is the opposite of Disneyfication–restoring the interrogative wonder of the original tales that later versions, such as Perrault or (unwittingly) Carter? It certainly deflates any attempt to presume that ‘classic’ tales are all just hegemonic, and ‘new, postmodern’ tales are all radial subversive. Points very, very well taken.

    I admit, I’m dreading meeting Harad Silkenhair. Aside from the fact that I think we were at uni together, I’m sure he’ll be such a well-drawn character I’ll utterly hate him. A brilliant read!

  13. Thank you all for these tremendous comments, and I’m glad to find so many of us know ‘Mr Fox’ and admire Lady Mary. Jane, that’s a wonderful story about Isak Dinesen! I hadn’t known.

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