Sunday, February 12, 2012

In her own words: Ruth Manning-Sanders on fairy tales

In many of her collections of retold folk and fairy tales from around the world, Ruth Manning-Sanders wrote short forewords and introductions. I wish she had written more. Her own thoughts and insights on the meaning and importance of fairy tales -- and the characters found within -- are quite wonderful and eloquent.

Shared here today is a selection of those passages (with a few illustrations by Robin Jacques mixed in, to keep the post from getting too text-heavy):
    Beginnings and inspirations
  • "The fact is that the story is ages and ages old, and no one can now tell where it originated, or by what wandering folk it was carried about the world. But we do know that it was being told, in some form or other, long before any book was written; before, indeed, anyone could read or write. And this is true of all these old stories that we now call fairy tales." -- from "A Choice of Magic"
  • "When we were children, my sisters and I, we spent our summer holidays in a farmhouse at the edge of a sea loch in the Highlands. The farmer's family was a big one, ranging from Granny Stewart (very old, very lame, and generally laughing) down through parents, grown-up sons and daughters, to children of our own age. Granny Stewart knew no end of stories, and she loved to tell them as much as we loved to listen. ... Of course, we weren't always listening to stories: that was a wet weather pastime. At other times we were out swimming, or riding the farm horses (when they allowed themselves to be caught) or boating on the loch and singing to the seals. ...The evenings would usually find us gathered in the big candle-lit barn, with one of the grown-up sons (either Jock or Lachie) marching up and down playing the bagpipes, and all the rest of us energetically dancing reels. What fun we had! But I think the highlight of all these holidays came on my tenth birthday. On the evening before this birthday (unknown to us children) a gipsy with a dancing bear arrived at the farm, asking to be ferried across the loch. With a good supper of cheese and oatcakes, and a bed of straw in a disused stable, the gipsy was easily persuaded to stay the night. Imagine my joyous surprise when, on running out the next morning after breakfast, I saw the bear on a grass plat close to the quay, waiting to go through his tricks. ... And when the tricks had been duly performed, with ample rewards of 'sugar and spice and all things nice' between each one, the bear was led down to the waiting boat, clambered in, and seated himself in the stern, like the seasoned traveller he was. I remember it so vividly: the bear with his humped brown back and heavy head, the two rowers watching his every movement rather anxiously, and ourselves standing in a group on the quay, shouting our farewells. But not once did that bear turn to give us a parting glance. His eyes were fixed on the opposite shore, where doubtless he would go through his performance all over again: though never, surely, to a more appreciative audience... (The name of the farm, by the way, was Shian, which means the place where fairies live.)" -- from "Scottish Folk Tales"
  • "Valiant lad, beautiful maiden, tyrannical parent, a host of difficulties to be overcome, but in the end triumph and a living happily ever after -- these are the essential ingredients that go to make up these age-old stories: our heritage from a vanished world where magic is everywhere present." -- from "A Choice of Magic"
  • "For of course the world of magic is not all friendly. There are giants in the mountains, trolls in the hills, witches and wizards and werewolves in the woods, dragons and monsters in the lakes and caves, and malicious dwarfs lurking under stones and behind trees. Up then, brave lad! Gird on your sword of sharpness, for the battle must be fought. There is no doubt that you will conquer." -- from "A Choice of Magic"
  • Cast of fairy-tale characters
  • "Mischievous [dwarfs] have remained from that day to his; but most of them are good-hearted, and if you treat them well they will lavish wonderful gifts and kindnesses upon you. But beware of taking liberties, even with the best of them! Of course a few of them are bad-tempered and as for these -- well, keep out of their way, if you can. But if you can't keep out of their way, try pitting your good feelings against their bad feelings, and you will generally come off best. At least that is what the story books say." -- from "A Book of Dwarfs"
  • "You will notice that the giants, wherever they come from, have one thing in common: they are all very stupid, and the way to overcome them is to use your wits. It is a question of 'brain against brawn'. Most of them are not such bad fellows as they are sometimes made out to be. True, they eat people when they can, but that is natural to them; and perhaps we should no more blame a giant for eating a man, than we blame a tiger for eating a deer, or a wolf for eating a sheep." -- from "A Book of Giants"
  • "What is the difference between an ogre and a troll? To begin with, ogres all are all huge creatures, and trolls, though they are sometimes very big, are just as often very little, like dwarfs. The ogres usually live in castles; the trolls make their homes in caves, or in grassy mounds, and they live in the northern parts of the world, in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. You will not find a troll venturing south, nor will you find an ogre going very far north; for ogres and trolls never live in the same countries." -- from "A Book of Ogres and Trolls"
  • "There is something rather pathetic about monsters. After all, they didn't make themselves; they can't help being huge and hideous. And if they are usually fierce and cruel -- well, if everyone hated and feared you, and ran screaming from the sight of you, wouldn't that be enough to give you a grudge against all humanity? It is really a wonder that any of them are kind-hearted; and yet some of them are." -- from "A Book of Monsters"
  • "Every country in the world has stories to tell about wizards. There are Red Indian wizards, and Chinese wizards, African wizards, English wizards, Celtic wizards, Greek, Italian, Arabian and Persian wizards. ... But there are many more good wizards than there are good witches; for whereas a good witch is the exception, there seem to be just as many good wizards going about the world as bad ones." -- from "A Book of Wizards"
  • "There are good witches and bad witches; but the number of the bad witches is great, and the number of the good witches is small. And since the business of the good witches is mainly to undo the mischief made by the bad ones, their stories are not very interesting. ... Now in all these stories, as in the fairy tales about witches in general, you may be sure of one thing: however terrible the witches may seem -- and whatever power they may have to lay spells on people and to work mischief -- they are always defeated. So that though, at some point in the story, you may find the hero or heroine in utter distress, you need never fear for them. Because it is the absolute and comforting rule of the fairy tale that the good and brave shall be rewarded, and that bad people shall come to a bad end." -- from "A Book of Witches"
  • "Sorcerers and sorceresses work their magic spells in much the same way as wizards and witches; and if you were to ask me what the difference is between a sorceress and a witch, I should say it is just a matter of dignity. You will never find a sorceress careering through the air on a broomstick, or bouncing over the ground in a wash tub, or indulging in undignified capers with devils on hill tops, after the manner of witches. The sorceress broods solitary over her books of spells and sends her powerful maledictions forth on the wings of the wind, or by some willing messenger." -- from "A Book of Sorcerers and Spells"
  • "Once upon a time and never again"
  • "It is the prime requisite of the fairy tale that it should end happily. I remember as a small girl hurling the book I had been reading across the floor in rage, because the heroine, instead of marrying the hero and living happily ever after, just went and died. A thing she had no right to do.
    "The heroine of a folk or fairy tale may be carried off by demons, she may be locked in a high tower, she may suffer untold miseries. The hero may be shipwrecked and left desolate on a desert island. Her may be attacked by giants, hurled into a pit by devils, wounded and left for dead by that treacherous fellow, Sir Red. What matter? We read on untroubled, knowing that all will come right. That is, of course, so far as the heroine or hero is concerned. A very different fate awaits the Sir Reds, the wicked stepmothers, the jealous sisters, the scheming elder brothers. For them it remains to be flung into burning pits, to be carried off to Hell by devils, or gobbled up by the witch Baba Yaga. That is the only justice: the young mind is stern and unforgiving in this respect." -- from "Folk and Fairy Tales"
  •    "One sunny morning I was out walking hand in hand with a very small girl.
       "'Tell me a story,' said the very small girl.
       "So I began, 'Once upon a time...'
       "I thought I was getting on nicely, when suddenly the very small girl stopped walking, flung away my hand, stamped her foot, and cried out, 'No, it wasn't -- it wasn't like that!'
       "'How do you know?' I asked.
       "'Because I was there,' said the very small girl.
       "Well, after that, of course the story had to go her way, not mine." -- from "A Book of Enchantments and Curses"
  • "But, alas, the stories are brought to a close. There can be no new fairy tales. They are records of the time when the world was very young; and never, in these latter days, can they, or anything like them, be told again. Should you try to invent a new fairy tale you will not succeed: the tale rings false, the magic is spurious. For the true world of magic is ringed with high, high walls that cannot be broken down. There is but one little door in the high walls which surround the world -- the little door of 'once upon a time and never again'.
    "And so it must suffice that we can enter through that little door into the fairy world and take our choice of all its magic." -- from "A Choice of Magic"

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