Today is my mum’s birthday. Ghillian Potts is 84. Like me, she has written all her literate life, and still has a notebook full of poems written between the ages of about 7 and 12, (of variable quality!)
To celebrate, my publishing company, Arachne Press, is publishing two of her books today. I crowd funded to the family, and my sisters and Dad all contributed.
I grew up with my mum’s stories, bedtime and bathtime we would congregate to hear the next installment in some long running saga (one of which featured a family of five girls whose names all started with R discovering that their headmistress is a witch, which went on for weeks), or demand yet again an old favourite; Jackanory had nothing on Mum, and the Singing Ringing Tree (remember that?) was a very poor second.
It turned out that the publishing world agreed, and three of Ghil’s stories for primary school aged children were published in the 1990’s, including Sink or Swim which made it onto Jackanory and we were very pleased that they had finally caught up with us! However relatively speaking, these were contemporary, girl/boy in the street, stories (even the one with a witch), which didn’t showcase Ghil’s magnificent flights of fantasy… Her agent ‘knew’ what would sell and just wasn’t interested in her magnificently funny and silly fairy tales for younger children, nor in her fantasy novels for the Young Adult market.
My all time most-often-demanded tale aged 5 or 6 was The Very Cross King, although when I asked Ghil to write it out for me recently, it wasn’t at all how I remembered. Unlike the glorious The Old Woman from Friuli, which was exactly as I remember it, possibly because it was written much later, when Ghil was learning Italian and heard this outrageous claim:
The people of Friuli are the most stubborn in the whole of Italy, and the women are even more stubborn than the men, but the old women… well!
As a 4 star review from The Book Bag says: … a clarion call to our daughters… Three cheers, I say!
Mum denies any intention to instil feminism in the young, saying that she was just having fun letting the Old Woman be as rude as possible, but it’s there nonetheless.
I commissioned Ed Boxall to do the illustrations, having worked with him before, and there would have been more if we could have afforded them.
I don’t have many shared interests with Ghil, we suffer from being very alike in personality but very different in outlook. Writing is our meeting place and touchstone.
Years ago I wrote an extended critique of the three books that make up The Naming of Brook Storyteller for Ghil, probably just before she offered them to the agent, I can’t recall now. And Mum did likewise for me on my novel The Dowry Blade. If there is one person it is difficult to take literary criticism from, it is your mum! Don’t try this at home! I’m sure she found my comments equally difficult, but we were both right. However, it meant that I know these books pretty well, and love them, although they have inevitable evolved over the interim, in fact I realised that some of the cultural peculiarities I had included in a early attempt at a fantasy novel (never to be published!) were swiped from Mum.
The decision to publish now was almost spur of the moment, but once made it felt absolutely right. Ghil’s writing inspired me to write, and these are fantastic stories that deserve a wider audience that they have had so far. Neither of us is getting any younger, and I want Mum to see these books published while she can still enjoy the process.
The trilogy tells the story of Brook Storyteller, orphaned and alone, befriended by outlaws and rulers; trained to remember, exactly, what happens, and sworn to always tell the truth, in a way that the listener will understand, and with the power to raise or destroy people by the names she gives them. Her own name is precious, and changes over the course of the three novels through the success and failure of her own actions.
This is absolutely a series based on the importance of acting and speaking truthfully and the consequences for those who don’t.
So when I sat Mum down and suggested I might publish some of her work, the choice was pretty much already made as to which books to start with, although I did look at one of her other Young Adult books that I remember her writing when I was about the age to be her target market, but these are the stories I grew up loving.
The second in the trilogy, Spellbinder, will be published in December, and the final one, Wolftalker, in June next year.
I told stories before I could write. I mean proper stories, not fibs. My Mum is a writer and she told us stories every night to get us to go to sleep, she usually had characters who were a bit grumpy, I have vivid memories of lying in the lower bunk aged 3 or 4, staring up at the slump made by my older sister as Mum told us ‘The VERY Cross King’ which was a particular favourite; another was ‘The Old Woman From Friuli’ and I think her style rubbed off on me.
By the time I was six I was telling my younger sister stories, heavily influenced by Cinderella and ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ and ‘Flashing Blades’ which were on television at the time. I recall having very rigid and Teutonic ideas of beauty: (very) long blonde hair, blue eyes, and red lips. It didn’t bother me in the slightest that I didn’t conform to this stereotype, although I can remember thinking a friend’s mother the picture of perfection… it is only now I recall the immense height of her peroxide beehive – which she covered with a chiffon scarf that barely met under her chin – Marge Simpson would have been proud of that barnet.
The tales I told were pretty blood bolted and full of danger; I was always more in favour of the Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, who (once I could read) I rejected as prissy.
And once I could read, I was a happy devourer of re-tellings of the Thousand and One Nights, Greek and Norse myth, and all kinds of British and European folk tales, especially the French and Russian ones.
Our local library had a good collection in the literature studies section, it might even have been a series, and I got these out again and again, although they were from the adult shelves and my junior ticket didn’t entitle me to them. The Librarians indulged me, and so did my primary school teacher, Miss Woodward, who lent me her own books to feed my voracious appetite.
I have affectionate memories of Roger Lancelyn Green’s Greek and Egyptian re-tellings, William Mayne’s Book of Heroes and Andrew Lang’s Blue, Yellow etc. fairy books, one of which I recall colouring in the illustrations without realising it was a library book. In my defence I had mumps at the time and wasn’t thinking very straight.
But … so many of these books I remember reading with a kind of transfixed horror, not for the gore (I’m a sucker for a werewolf) but for the matter-of-fact-ness and inevitability of the way things go wrong. I read the Mabinogion when I was ten, and had nightmares for weeks. There are an awful lot of severed heads that go on talking in folk tales if you stop to count them, and some of them aren’t even people.
I suspect that if I were to read them again now I would find these stories tedious or disturbing, but they were a great grounding in story telling.
I wrote my first fairy story when I was six or seven, I think. It was called ‘The Prince, the Princess and the Goatherd.’ I don’t know why the Prince got top billing as he had very little to do or say but the rhythm of the title wouldn’t be nearly so good if it was a different order.
It went (minus the grammar) something like this.
Once upon a time there was a very pretty Princess (by which I meant blond blue-eyed and red-lipped of course) who lived in a castle with the Queen and the King.
The King was very cross all the time, (homage to Mum’s V.C.K) and didn’t like the Princess.
The Princess had a friend who was a Prince and she wanted to marry him (actually I’m not sure she did, but there was something going on with them, and she was a bossy young madam who liked to get her way.)
So the Princess told the Queen. And the Queen said
“Oh dear! The King isn’t going to like that at all. I think you two had better run away.” So the Princess packed her suitcase (it was a small brown cardboard one, with a lovely striped paper lining and a plastic handle, and I kept my doll’s clothes in it) and said to the Prince
“Come on, we are running away.”
And they did.
Not long after they had started to run away they met a goatherd.
“Hello goatherd,” said the Princess.
“Hello you two, where are you running off to?” Said the goatherd
“We are running away,” said the Princess.
“Quite right too,” said the goatherd.
So the Prince and Prince went on their way and soon they came to a river without a bridge. (Not a big river, they could probably have jumped it but they were much too genteelly brought up for that to occur to them.)
“Oh dear” said the Princess (although it might have been the Prince, I’m sure he had an opportunity to speak once in a while) “how will we get across?”
“I will help you,” said the goatherd.
“Where did you come from?” Said the Princess.
“I was following you, I knew you would need help.” Said the goatherd. And (got them over the river somehow. Can’t remember, maybe the goats carried them, or he just ‘Magicked’ them over, my memory fails me).
“Thank you goatherd,” said the Prince and Princess and went on their way.
By now they were quite hungry, but it was all right because they were just coming up to the Princess’ uncle’s house. (I remember this house vividly, it was a lighthouse keeper’s cottage with whitewashed walls and a thick waist height whitewashed wall around the garden, with wallflowers and aubrietia growing in the top. It was set on a low cliff and surrounded by neat green turf. I can’t think where I had seen this house or a picture of it, but that’s what it was. Interestingly there was no lighthouse. My partner says this is a ‘Topsy & Tim’ house, she may be right.)
The Princess’ nasty uncle was in his garden pruning his roses (I think he must have been based on a neighbour)
“Well hello, you two,” said P.N.U, “where are you two running off to?”
“We’re running away,” said the Princess.
“Well you must stop for tea,” said the P.N.U.
“Thank you,” said the Princess “we are very hungry,” and they went in and sat down for buns and squash. (I’m sure I thought about poisoning them at this point, but I restrained myself).
As soon as they were inside the P.N.U slammed the door and locked them in. Then he rushed off to tell the King where the Princess was. He was a very nasty uncle.
As soon as the P.N.U. had gone, there was a knock on the door.
“I’m very sorry,” said the Princess, “I can’t let you in, the door is locked.”
“That’s alright,” said the goatherd, “I have the key,” and he let them out.
“How lucky you came along,” said the Prince.
“Just passing,” said the goatherd.
Just then they saw the P.N.U. and the King running along towards them.
“You two had better run off,” said the goatherd so they did.
By now they were very tired.
“I’m tired,” said the Princess.
“So am I” said the Prince “Shall we go home?”
“Yes let’s,” said the Princess, “but the King will be very cross.”
But they went home anyway.
“Hello you two,” said the Queen, “where did you two run off to?”
So the Princess told her all about the goatherd and the river and the nasty uncle.
“Oh, the goatherd isn’t really a goatherd,” said the Queen, “that was your other uncle, he’s a very clever magician. I sent him to keep an eye on you. Well, I think you should go to bed very quickly, and by the time the King wakes up in the morning I’m sure he will have forgotten all about it.”
So the Princess went to bed, and in the morning, the King was very cross, but not with her.
(Some poetic licence here, I can’t remember how it ended!)
There were many other fairy tales, but I don’t recall them. My mum uncovered the original manuscript of this one shortly after my first collection was published and sent a typed up version to me as my Christmas card. I have since lost it and I don’t know if she still has the manuscript. I recall she said the final sentence was unintelligible, my handwriting has never been good, something to do with the effort of keeping up with the speed of thought.
So reflecting on this first effort, what I notice is that I have picked up on the plot twist of the mysterious and apparently humble stranger who is actually someone entirely different from whom they seem to be, the antagonism between the family members, the journey, and the use of repetition both in words and homonyms, much loved by the traditional story tellers. There’s even an overlay of The Billy Goats Gruff with the (lack of) bridge and the goats, although they are invisible throughout.
And I didn’t stop there.
My partner mishearing me sparked my first ‘adult’ story, I was talking about an author Sheila Ortiz Taylor, and she heard this as ‘The She-lord and her Tailor.’ A couple of hours later I had the beginnings of a retelling of the emperor’s new clothes, with a murderous cat as the She-lord in the Emperor role.
My first published story (In ‘In and Out of Time’ Onlywomen Press 1986) was a retelling of the end of the Odyssey, called ‘Penelope is no longer waiting’, in which Odysseus does not get the welcome he expects.
Twenty years later The She-lord finally got published in ‘Tales Told Before Cockcrow – fairytales for adults’ (Onlywomen Press 2008) my collection of stories inspired by the fairytale tradition. Each story is a retelling of a traditional tale or is told in the style of a fairy tale.
I draw on Eurydice, Tithonos, Pandora, Sleeping Beauty, Rip Van Winkle, Snow White, The Red Shoes, the emperors new clothes, Arthurian Myth, the Mabinogion, Homer, the bible and many other folk tales and indeed folk songs of eerie landscapes, cold clay and strange destinies that I took in with my mother’s milk, almost literally.
So have I done with fairytales? Well, no, I think probably not.
Being a precocious reader meant that I was exploring my parent’s bookshelves at a very early age, and initially got the impression that all adult fiction was crime and thrillers. Then I read Peter S Beagle’s‘The Last Unicorn’, and with relief discovered that I was going to be able to read fairy tales for the rest of my life. Twelve was undoubtedly too young for this book, I didn’t realise it was funny until I re-read it at about the age of thirty.
So I’ve just finished writing a Lesbian Fantasy Epic in which that impassable river re-occurs, this time with tragic consequences, unlike that little trickle that a goat could jump.
So is this the magic of fairy tales? That they grow with you and can be turned to any use you care to put them?
Or are they the apparently humble stranger who turns up when they are needed, and is not who they seem to be?