I am famously fascinated by fairy tales – I love their wild beauty and their hidden claws.
Many of my novels draw inspiration from myth and folklore and fairy-tale. However, my books are not conventional retellings, in the way that Ella Enchanted is a retelling of ‘Cinderella’.
I am more interested in the history of fairy tales, and in their secret language, their symbols and metaphors and mythic structures. Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s closest colleague, wrote: ‘Of the various types of mythological literature, fairy tales are the simplest and purest expressions of the collective unconscious and thus offer the clearest understanding of the basic patterns of the human psyche.’ It is this idea of fairy tales as some kind of distillation of the subconscious which intrigues me.
Of all my work, Bitter Greens is the closest to the traditional mode of fairy-tale retellings, for it takes the well-known story of ‘Rapunzel’ and reimagines it into a setting in Renaissance Venice. One narrative thread is the story of the girl locked away in a tower; another is told in the voice of the witch, the woman who locks her away.
I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to have three narrative threads, so that the structure of the book would symbolise the impossibly long plait of hair that is the most memorable motif of the fairy-tale. The most logical choice would have been to have told the story of the mother forced to give up her child. It was not, however, what I wanted to do. Instead I set out on a quest to discover who first told the tale.
Angela Carter once said that trying to find out the source of a fairy-tale is like trying to find out who invented meatballs. It’s not quite true, though. A fairy-tale is like a virus. It travels long distances, adapts itself to its host, and changes and evolves to find new carriers. New methods of research can help us track the evolution of stories by the repetition or modification of key motifs or phrases or patterns of action. It’s a kind of forensic linguistics.
‘Rapunzel’, like so many fairy tales, has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. The earliest recorded story of a maiden in the tower is that of ‘Danaë and the Golden Shower’, recounted by such Ancient Greek dramatists as Sophocles and Euripides.
However, the story that we know of as ‘Rapunzel’ was written in 1697 by a French noblewoman named Charlotte-Rose de la Force while she was imprisoned in a convent by her second cousin, Louis XIV. Her fairy tales were published under the pseudonym Mademoiselle X, and proved so popular she was eventually able to buy her way free. As soon as I discovered her story, I knew that I wanted her voice to be the third strand in my narrative braid.
My following novel, The Wild Girl, also focused on the true-life story of a fairy-tale teller. She was a young woman named Dortchen Wild who grew up next door to the Grimm brothers in Kassel, and was one of the most important oral sources of stories for their famous collection of fairy tales. Although I do not retell any of her tales, in the way that I had done in Bitter Greens, I drew upon the motifs and metaphors of seven of Dortchen’s stories to show the uncanny similarities between her life and the tales she told. ‘Hansel and Gretel’, a story of unloved children. ‘Six Swans’, the tale of a girl who must stay mute. ‘Fitcher’s Bird,’ with its bloody chamber. ‘The Singing Bone,’ an account of brotherly love turned awry. ‘All-Kinds-of-Fur’, about a king who wants to marry his own daughter. ‘Sweetheart Roland’, the story of a girl whose lover has forgotten her. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, a dynamic variant of the ‘Beauty & the Beast’ tale in which the heroine follows her cursed beast-husband for seven years, battles with the enchantress who cursed him, and saves him with the strength of her love and the fortitude of her spirit.
My most recent novel, Beauty in Thorns, explores a Victorian artist’s obsession with ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Edward Burne-Jones, who was one of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of poets and artists, was only six days old when his mother died. His childhood was shadowed by grief and loneliness. He first drew the sleeping princess as a young man, and it was a theme he returned to again and again throughout his life. In 1890, his monumental quartet ‘The Legend of Briar Rose’ sold for a record 15,000 guineas and made him the most celebrated artist of his time. The novel is told from the point of view of four women, including his wife Georgie (the model for the first sleeping princess) and his daughter Margot (the model for the last).
I am interested in why fairy tales continue to speak so potently to so many people; how their meanings are both universal and archetypal, and yet also uniquely personal. Fairy tales are not just idle amusements for children. They offer a stage in which to play out the universal dramas of the human psyche: fears of abandonment, longings for love, the desire for purpose and meaning in life. They offer us a language in which we can express all that cannot be spoken.
In The Wild Girl, Wilhelm Grimm says to Dortchen Wild: ‘The whole reason for telling fairy tales is to awaken the heart. To help people believe that misfortune can be overcome and evil conquered. If fairy tales are to do their work, they must shine.’