Favourite things

A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Castle:

Though, considering the setting, perhaps would have more aptly been titled, A Midwinter Night’s Dream? Temperature: 53 F/12 C (‘Feels Like’ 48 F/9 C); misty, drizzly, rainy; 20mph NNE wind, with 35mph gusts. Yes, this is Scotland in summer.

Even so, the play was thoroughly enjoyable. As a medieval fairyologist, I do tend to be annoyed with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it was Shakespeare who made fairies small and gave them names like Cobweb and Peasblossom, but I can’t help but love Puck. (He is related to the Pooka, after all.) Puck was wonderful and camp and Scottish and played the violin. The picture above was taken just before Oberon (far right) woke Titania (on the steps with Bottom) and removed the love spell that had made her fall in love with a mortal (and a donkey).

Tomorrow I am going to see Romeo & Juliet performed by the same actors, in the same setting. With any luck it will be less wet, but at least I will be prepared!

The Wee Free Men

Opening line: ‘Some things start before other things.’

Strange things are happening on the Chalk. Monsters rise out of normally quiet streams, the baron’s son disappears in the forest, horse and all, and when her little brother disappears too, nine-year-old Tiffany Aching has to do something. Armed only with her wit, a frying pan, and an army of pictises, the Nac Mac Feegle, Tiffany crosses into Fairyland and into the land of dreams to steal her brother back from the Queen.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett was a charming book to read. It is geared for a younger audience than I’m used to reading, as its protagonist is only nine years’ old. Independently from each other, two of my friends recommended this book to me upon hearing that I wasn’t a fan of Terry Pratchett. I mean, I enjoyed Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman) and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, but the only other Discworld novel I had read was Mort, with which I was rather unimpressed. And yet it seemed almost wrong of me not to like Terry Pratchett, considering that several of my friends most vehemently did. So I checked out The Wee Free Men from the public library and yes, it was enjoyable to read. I’m still not head-over-heels for Terry Pratchett, and I’m not going to go out and read every Discworld novel there is, but at least I now know that I might like some Discworld.

My favourite thing about The Wee Free Men was, of course, the Nac Mac Feegle. They spoke in Scots with a thick Scottish Brogue and I could hear it in my heid. Er, head. ‘Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna be fooled again!’

My other home

After researching in London I went to Oxford for the Romance in Medieval Britain conference. I arrived two days before the conference so I could do some more research in the Bodleian and spend time with my travel-partner-in-crime Chris R. — of Portugal and Cyprus fame — and Oxford is our ‘home base of operations’ so to speak. As usual, we saw a play: Hamlet, performed by Creation Theatre, but otherwise we were both working. We walked into town together through the fog before parting ways at University Parks.

Whereas Chris went on to Wycliffe, I went to the Bodleian Special Collections. After walking around the outside of the Radcliffe Science Library, wandering through the maze, trying to get the change machine to work (and only having a £20-note, oy), and getting my bag stored in a locker at last, I went into the reading room, committed my name to paper and gave my Bod card over for ransom, and in return was handed the remaining printed fragments of the 1510 edition of Melusine.

(Yes, I did receive permission to take these photographs.)

I was expecting only two fragments… but there were six! I took as many notes as I could, and the Bodleian Special Collections will be seeing me again, once I have a better idea of what it is I’m looking for. Can’t you see why I love my job? How couldn’t you love a woodcut illustration of Geoffray with the Great Tooth fighting the giant Guedon? Continue reading

Fairies done right

Considering that I study fairies for my PhD, I read fantasy novels, and even write fantasy novels about fairies, it should come as no surprise that I’ve begun compiling a list of novels that “do fairies right”. That is, none of this Victorian, butterfly-winged Tinkerbell nonsense. I’ve thrown in a couple of medieval texts (with translation) to demonstrate how these modern (20th and 21st century) texts stay true to the spirit and form of romance.

  1. Anderson, Poul. Three Hearts and Three Lions. (1961)
  2. Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. (1968)
  3. Burgess, Glyn S. and Keith Busby, trans. The Lais of Marie de France. (Late 12th c.)
  4. Clarke, Susanna. The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and other stories. (2006)
  5. Colum, Padraic. The King of Ireland’s Son. (1916)
  6. Dunsay, Lord. The King of Elfland’s Daughter. (1924)
  7. Gaiman, Neil. Stardust. (1998)
  8. Marillier, Juliet. Wildwood Dancing. (2006)
  9. Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. (1971)
  10. Troyes, Chrétien de. The Knight with the Lion (Yvain). (Late 12th c.)
  11. Warner, Silvia Townsend. Kingdoms of Elfin. (1977)

This is, of course, a work in progress…

NaNoWriMo Prep, 1

NaNoWriMo is only twelve (12) days away. Have you signed up? Do you have a title? A character? Better yet, do you have a story? Don’t worry if you don’t. I have heard from a very high authority that, ‘No plot? No problem!’ works for November.

This is my 8th WriMo (my 5th NaNoWriMo), and this year I am writing the fourth installment in my Pooka series, my retellings of fairy tale and Greek myth. Writing a series has its ups and downs. I did most of the world building with the first novel, which means I more or less have a ready-made setting. Each subsequent book, however, takes place in a different kingdom with a new cast of characters — only the Pooka is consistent. Prince Silas from Book 1 is the father of Prince Linus (Book 2), the grandfather of Princess Agnes (Book 3), and the great-grandfather of Prince Lukas (Book 4). So despite having new characters for each book, I also have to stay true to their family history and adventures.

So how do I go about coming up with a story? Book 1, The Faerie King, was perhaps the easiest of all. I didn’t know I was going to be writing a series then. I knew I wanted to retell Sir Orfeo, one of my favourite medieval romances. It is a 14th-century Middle English retelling of the Orpheus & Eurydice myth, set in Celtic Britain instead of in Greece. Eurydice is kidnapped by the King of Fairy instead of Hades, and it has a different ending. I was rereading it for fun while working as a dramaturg for OBU’s production of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Way; the play sets the fairy tale in medieval Wales. The Greek myth, fairy tale, and medieval Celtic/British setting fused together so well that I decided to write it into a novel. And I did.

With each subsequent book, I have tried to follow the same pattern. I try to find a well-known fairy tale, usually French or German in origin. I’ve read a lot of fairy tales over the past couple of years! Meanwhile, I’m also reading Greek myths, brushing up on my Olympian gods and heroes, hoping that I will find a narrative that can easily be woven alongside a fairy tale. I also relentlessly talk through fairy tales and myths with my friends: it was Sarah’s suggestion that I look into the Cupid & Psyche myth. That myth ended up being the myth I used for The Harpy (Book 2), combined with ‘Beauty and the Beast’. The clue that linked them together in my mind? Both had enchanted palaces with invisible servants. The Harpy was also heavily influenced by the medieval romance Melusine, which I had been reading at the time.

The Golden Crab (Book 3) was more difficult, because I was writing about a princess instead of a prince. Most princesses in fairy tales tend to be quite passive, and that wasn’t what I wanted. The Golden Crab ended up having a blend of lots of fairy tale elements — Thumbelina, The Snow Queen, and The Black Bull of Norroway — but the overarching story was the Greek myth of Persephone.

By the end of each novel I know who my next protagonist is, because the narrator neatly ties up the strings in the last chapter. The Golden Crab ends with the announcement of the birth of two of Agnes’s nephews, so I knew that Book 4 would be about either Tobias or Lukas. The more I thought about it and the overarching narrative of the narrator (because the narrator has a story, too), I knew it was going to be about Prince Lukas of Marschon.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks reading fairy tales and Greek myths, trying to find a story I haven’t told before. Before I knew anything else, I knew that Lukas was called ‘The Knight of the Swan’. The fairy tale I’ve chosen is The Six Swans, the mythology elements will come from Perseus’s adventures, with some inspiration from the medieval romance of the same title, The Knight of the Swan.

Now, to weave them together? Thank goodness — I have 12 days to think of a plot!

Good start

Day One of the XXIII Triennial Congress of the International Arthurian Society and I have new chapter for my thesis. Is there a difference between normal human romance heroines, heroines who use magic, and magical heroines (e.g., fairies)? I shall find out.

A few tips

When presenting a paper, do not do the following:

  • Drink blue Powerade before or during your presentation (or any colour);
  • Read from single-spaced text;
  • Wear a graphic t-shirt and jeans (with or without holes);
  • Make asides in sotto voce;
  • Speak in monotone;
  • Neglect to indicate quotations;
  • Make funny noises or faces when one mispronounces something;
  • Go over time.

Instead, take these words of advice: read from a double-spaced, size 14 text; know your text well and practice reading it ahead of time. Have someone listen to you with a timer and their own copy of the text so they can mark places that are unclear or awkward. Smile, and act confident even if you don’t feel like it. If you make a mistake, continue forward as if you meant to do that, and few will be the wiser.

Despite some of the above occurring at the conference I attended this week, it was a very good conference. It was very enjoyable to discuss my topic with ‘my kind’ — other folklorists, even a few of them also being medievalists. I presented my work on a comparative etymological survey between fairy and elf and was told by one of the Professional Folklorists afterward that he enjoyed it because it went ‘whoosh — right over [his] head’. I was greatly impressed by the group of postgraduates that organised the conference: it was obvious they worked well together, as a team they were very welcoming and friendly, and also as individuals actively mingled during break times. Definitely a good model to follow if I ever co-organise a conference!