Fairy Tales & Fertility

I’ve been writing lately, and you know what an excellent procrastination method is? Research. So, okay, I’ve been researching lately; tracking down fairy tales about infertility and the wise women and witches who aid the Queen (it’s usually a queen) in her desire for a child. Often in her desperation (and for the sake of a good story), the Queen tempts fate a little too much. She eats two roses instead of one. She makes rash promises. She wishes just a bit too hard… though how that can be a fault, I don’t know.

We don’t have many tales left on the subject of fertility left in the canon of well known fairy tales. Stories recorded around the 1700s often spoke directly of pregnancy, birth, and desire. But by the time we came to eras of the Grimm Brothers and H. C. Anderson, and then Victorian England, the visceral aspects of life were all but eradicated from fairy tales.

Here are a few stories I found.

Prince Lindworm. A fabulous tale, with a childless Queen, a terrifying serpent, and whips in the bedroom. Really.

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The Lindworm, Lorena Carrington

Thumbelina. Made famous by Hans Christian Anderson, Thumbelina is one of the more well known tales that begins with infertility.

“I should so very much like to have a little child; can you tell me where I can find one?”

“Oh, that can be easily managed,” said the fairy. “Here is a barleycorn of a different kind to those which grow in the farmer’s fields, and which the chickens eat; put it into a flower-pot, and see what will happen.”

If only it were always that easy.

The Myrtle. A good reminder that you should be careful what you wish for: “O heavens! if I might but have a little baby–I should not care, were it even a sprig of a myrtle.” You’ll never guess what she gave birth to.

One word. Splinters.

Sorry.

The Myrtle is one of many wonderful tales from  Giambattista Basile‘s The Pentamerone, a fabulous collection of tales from the 1630s.  Many of the tales were later adapted by Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers.

There are tales of accidental and surprise pregnancy too, though I’m not sure if any of them would have washed as excuses, even in the 1600s.

The Young Slave

The mothers in these tales really don’t have a good time of it. Accidentally impregnated by a rose petal (sure…), then cursed to kill her child while combing her hair after seven years. Her daughter sleeps in a glass casket for many years, until the lethal comb is removed from her hair. Her mother has since died and she is beaten and treated like a slave by her Uncle’s cruel wife, until the truth is eventually uncovered and she lives happily ever after… But yikes, surely the psychological damage is done.

The Maiden with a Rose on her Forehead

A young woman promises to look after her brother’s garden while he goes away to war. In her dedication to him and his garden, she never leaves, and eventually gives birth to a daughter with a rose on her head. So what was she doing during all those long nights under the rose bushes?

There are many stories that revolve around conception and fertility, and I’ve barely touched on them here. It’s a powerful and personal subject for many, and interesting to follow back into the history of storytelling.

I’d love to hear of other tales of magic-assisted pregnancies you may know of…
PS: Thank you to Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario and Tory Tedeschi for their reading suggestions and wise council, particularly the Nancy Canepa translation of Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone which is winging its way across the ocean to me right now. 

Art vs Illustration (don’t worry, it’s not war)

I heard last week that a project I’d spent a lot of time working on last year has been shelved. Which, while it caused a momentary sigh, did have the advantage of freeing up some images that I can now use for my own projects. It’s given me a new push to get back to something I’d shelved myself a year or so ago! And it’s exciting to be back thinking about it.

A story I wrote some time ago has been gathering dust, and I’ve got it back out, found a few more typos, and got to work making some more illustrations for it. The long term plan is to include it in a collection of illustrated short stories woven around fairy tales. Not an original idea perhaps, but one that I’m excited about.

This project got me thinking a little about the idea of Art vs Illustration, when I found myself noticing that a new work I was making yesterday was definitely leaning towards the illustration camp. And I should pause here to say very clearly that I see absolutely no difference in the value and validity between art and illustration. But there is a difference between the style and intent. An illustration works alongside text which, to me, is what makes it such an exciting medium. The complete narrative is created by the relationship between image and text, each adding meaning to the other. An artwork on the otherhand, must exist by itself. It is open to further interpretation, and allows the viewer to create their own story around it.

My works often weave between the two. I need them to sit happily both on the wall and on the page. But sometimes if they lean toward the page a little further, that’s fine too.

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Update: As an illustration, the above piece needed more detail to mirror the text. The handy thing about illustrating your own work is that you can alter both text and image to suit each other! In this case, it’s a matter of compromise between the two. The text will change a little, but the still carriage needed the extra animals and “lanterns that burned with an eery glow”.

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PS: I often make a point of using our local sunny Australian landscape as a backdrop for the often European-forested tales, but the wombat may have to go…

The Victorian Writer

I was thrilled to have been commissioned by Writers Victoria to contribute a feature article and a front cover image for their April/May issue. The issue’s theme is around Writing for Young Adults, and I contributed a piece on adolescent transformation in fairy tales. I’m in excellent company, and look forward to settling down in front the fire with a cup of tea to read them all.

Hello to those who made it here from the pages of The Victorian Writer. For those new to my work, I have a (new) website at lorenacarrington.com and also tweet from @lorena_c.

 

Arts Open

Opening up your house to strangers is often a fraught and invasive enterprise. It usually means you’re trying to sell it or, if you’re renting, someone else is selling it out from underneath you. Or the estate agent is inspecting it and, if you’ve kept it nice enough, they’ll let you stay.

In our case, it’s a celebration of Art and the work we’ve made over the course of a year. We transform our living space into a gallery and open it up to the public every March. It’s a fine line between clearing as much out as we can, and keeping it liveable for the times between. This year, we were open last long weekend, and this one, for Arts Open Castlemaine. We scrub the windows, throw art up on the walls, and optimistically buy lots of red dot sale stickers because we always lose the pack we bought last year in the intervening 11 and a half months.

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Despite the occasional bought of nerves, and all the extra cleaning, it’s wonderful. People are lovely and chatty, and ask great questions, and often lead me to new ideas, just by talking about the work. They see a different angle to something that I hadn’t considered, or are affected by different ideas in an image or story. Some respond to something from their childhood, or to the single mother in a story, and some just want to know the technical details. Whatever it is, there’s something about talking about the same thing over and over again to different people over several days that brings out new ideas to me as well: new work I want to make, or a different way of seeing an image I created and know right down to each leaf and twig.

Even if we don’t make as many sales as hoped (there are always some, but I never seem to end the week rolling around in a mountain of cash, tossing banknotes around like autumn leaves; gold coins tinkling around me like rain, and that seems most unfair) it’s an invaluable way to make new contacts, generate ideas, and absorb some of the enthusiasm that people bring with them. Always, the positives outweigh the odd negative. Of course we do get the odd close-talker, looooong-talker, left-of-field theorist or self-promoter. And there always, always seems to be one who is a combination of all of the above. Last week one man claimed something so wacky, and frankly racist, that I was very happy to show him the door. And there was the woman who walked in, cast a cool glance around, said “No, this isn’t what I want to see,” and swept out again. But I treasure these moments too, for they give me good drinking stories.

This year I am exhibiting work with my mum (Hooray!) Jenny Carrington, an incredible artist, book crafter and weaver, amongst many things. Style-wise, she comes from a ‘hard-edge’ background, but her connection to the landscape that is often her subject makes her work anything but hard. It’s imbued with symbolism, spirit and her deep love for the Australian bush.

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Her woodblock prints are uncomplicated, but they’re far from simple.

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And her pen drawing are full of so much detail, even her perfect shading is accomplished with thousands of perfectly placed pen-marks.

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Arts Open is a great chance to visit artist’s studios and see how they work. Castlemaine is an incredible hub of artists: Photographers, painters, sculptors, printmakers, jewellers… You name it, someone here makes it.

So if you’re in Castlemaine this weekend (March 19th & 20th) please do come visit. Our door is open!

 

Port Fairy Exhibition

A few weeks ago we packed up our family (and stinky dog) and made the 4 hour trip down to lovely Port Fairy on Australia’s South Coast. And then the next weekend we did it all again (minus dog). We go down to Port Fairy every year for their Spring Music Festival, and stay with our good friends Anna and Ross, who own a holiday house in town. I’m not saying we choose our friends by their holiday houses… but it’s a bonus. This year the wonderful Jo from Blarney Books had invited me to exhibit in their gallery, and the opening happily coincided with this year’s festival.

I was already very happy to be asked to exhibit in such a beautiful gallery, which FYI is attached to my new very favourite bookshop, but the best part has been getting to know Jo and her family. Our kids get on like a house on fire, and to my delight, Jo and I connected just as quickly. (Hi Jo!)

Check out the stage and trapeze swing IN THE BOOKSHOP. (I told you it was fabulous.)

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Jo and her husband Dean very kindly hung the show for me in the week between visits, and we returned to find this!

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And the angels sang.

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I had made several new works for this show (my sixth, and final – thank goodness! – for the year), some of which I’ve posted about here, and it was wonderful to see them hanging with the others.

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The opening was fabulous, with champagne provided by the generous Jo & Dean, and more people attending that you can see in the photo below. I blathered about fairy tales and art making for a while, and fielded some fantastic questions. Sadly I have no idea what any of them were, as the adrenaline that finally washed out of my system, also washed away all but a faint recollection of events.*

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The exhibition is still up for another couple of weeks, so if you live near by, or know anyone who does, I urge to to go along for a look, and to browse the fabulous bookshop. You won’t leave empty handed!

* I was going to attach my notes from the artist talk but they are a mix of dot points and carefully crafted sentences that I never used. They make no sense at all. 

Fairy Tales and the Adolescent Transformation

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After creating the above image, Metamorphosis, recently, I’ve been thinking about the fairy tale as an allegory for puberty and adolescence. The image itself is about the sense of change as one enters that new stage in life. As a child (on the left) we have a solid idea of who we are in the world, but entering adolescence (the figure on the right), our sense of self can be all but annihilated. For a long time it’s a dance between the two. As we pull away from childhood, we have to rebuild ourselves, trying on all sorts of skins; cobbling together influences and ideas until we remake ourselves as adults. We are bone and feather, leaf and twig; a fragile tangle of scavenged treasures.

Fairy tales perfectly explore this mystifying time: Fingers are pricked and blood is drawn; a drawn-out sleep transforms child into adult (and in some cases mother) before she knows what has happened; a path is travelled and foes battled before the previously young and hapless hero or heroine emerges victorious (and usually married).

Adam and Eve

I’d never really thought about the Adam and Eve story in the context of fairy tales before, and when it came to me in that half sleep state last night, I thought myself a momentary genius. Of course this morning I really wasn’t surprised to find that it has been explored widely as myth and allegory. I still think it would make a great fairy tale: Once upon a time, there was a King who planted a beautiful walled garden. He found two orphans, a boy and a girl, and invited them to live in this lush paradise, under one strict condition… See, it’s perfect. There’s the fantastical garden, a command to be disobeyed, temptation, consequence… And of course, the broken barrier between a childhood innocence and adulthood. Adam and Eve are effectively cosseted children, until the forbidden apple awakens their sexual natures and they head out to find their own way in the world.

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Peter Paul Rubens 004” by Peter Paul Rubens

Snow White

Speaking of dangerous apples! Snow White is the perfect allegory for puberty and the breaking away from the influence of one’s parent. The mother is jealous of her daughter’s youth and beauty, and Snow White must find her way to autonomy. I’m not sure shacking up with seven men is the path I’d recommend, but we all need to find our own way I guess…
Snow White suffers several deaths and rebirths, growing a little wiser each time one would hope, finally emerging as a free adult. Well, sort of. She still marries Prince Charming. And speaking of Prince Charming…

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Franz Jüttner Schneewittchen 7” by Franz Jüttner

Cinderella

As above: escape from the overbearing (step)mother, guided path to self discovery and freedom from parental rule, handsome prince, blah blah blah. (Cinderella is not one of my favourite stories).

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Gustave dore cendrillon4“.

The Sleeping Beauty

Bruno Bettelheim says it best in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales: “The central theme of all versions of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is that, despite all attempts on the part of parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.” (P. 230, 1976 edition)

Yep. Sigh. Sleeping Beauty is cursed to prick her finger (blood=menstruation) and fall into the a deep slumber, and despite all her parents best efforts to keep her from this fate, it is inevitable. Bettelheim also talks about the long sleep in relationship to the fog and flurry of adolescence: “During the months before the first menstruation, and often also for some time immediately following it, girls are passive, seem sleepy, and withdraw into themselves… ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is needed.” (P. 225)

Sleeping Beauty enters her adolescent sleep as a child, and emerges as a marriageable women. In Giambattista Basile’s version, Sun, Moon and Talia, poor Beauty, or Talia, wakes up a mother of twins(!) after the prince charmingly impregnates her:

“…she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.”

Well. There’s a lot I have to say about the infuriating passivity of women in fairy tales (and the accepted male entitlement), and Sleeping Beauty, I think, is a fine bloody example. But that’s for another blog post.

Sleeping Beauty painting by Edward Burne-Jones
Sleeping beauty by Edward Burne-Jones

Little Red Riding Hood

In this tale Little Red literally follows a path through her adolescence. She begins in her mother’s home, and leaves to travel through the wild forest, where she encounters the threat of the wolf (ahem, slick-haired, leather jacket wearing, no-gooder) who attempts to lead her from the accepted path. Depending on which version you read, she is eaten by the wolf after getting into her Grandmother’s bed with him (well, really) or escapes the gastronomic fate of her grandmother. Either way, she is rescued by the hunter (swarthy, check-shirt wearing hipster good guy), and I guess learns a lesson and emerges wiser from her wayward teenage ways.

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Arthur Rackham Little Red Riding Hood+” by Arthur Rackham

I could recount similar examples all day, and get into more complicated stories and readings of them, but looking at these well known tales has edged me towards a little more respect for them. It still bugs me that our most famous fairy tales are those with passive girls who become passive women married to handsome princes (it really does make me grumpy), but at least there’s something more to find in them than ‘be kind and good and wait your turn, and you’ll find eternal happiness and fulfilment in marriage to someone rich and handsome’. Reading them as an metaphor for change rather than instructions for living gives me much less of a stomach ache.


Fairy tales are rich in allegory, for that is really what they are, and there are millions of words written on their deeper meanings. Here are a few you might enjoy. What are your favourite books about fairy tales?

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim.

From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, Marina Warner

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale: Marina Warner 

Off with their heads!: fairy tales and the culture of childhood, Maria Tatar

Fates and Furies: A Review

Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff

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While technically nothing to do with fairy tales, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies draws on, and heavily refers to, mythology  and archetypes… So I’m calling it close enough.

Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage, and while it really is an intensely self-involved portrait of a relationship, it feels bigger. Groff draws a wide net, pulling in a world of mythology, philosophy and experience and concentrating it all down to a simmering and dense relationship between two people.

Her use of myths could have become overdone – there’s an early doomed relationship between Lotto (Lancelot) and Gwennie (Guinevere), a play based on Antigone that reflects themes of the book itself, countless references to Greek works and mythology, many of which I probably missed – but she uses them wisely. We are even interrupted occasionally by small asides embedded in the text: a Greek Chorus commenting on the action. I found my thinking ‘this should seem overwrought, but it works’. Groff’s writing is clever. She know when to hold back, and when to reveal.

I read Fates and Furies as a digital galley, so didn’t realised until l was quite far into the book that it is split into two parts: Fates (from Lotto’s Point of view) and Furies (from Mathilde’s). Mathilde is intentionally keep at arms length in Lotto’s section: we see his obsessive love for her, we feel it, but she is almost a paper cut-out to us the reader. I realised this was intentional, but was glad to cut to her point of view in the second half of the book.

The Fates and Furies are not just used as a catchy title. Lotto himself really is rolled along by fate. Things to happen to him. There are few times when he actively reaches out, but when he does we may find later that maybe the Furies have had some hand in his fate. The Furies, in Greek mythology, “…were female spirits of justice and vengeance. … Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad.” Mathilde is driven by deep rooted anger and revenge. She loves Lotto passionately, there is a ferocity at her core.

Reading Mathilde’s Furies was a deeply satisfying experience after the excess of Lotto’s Fates. Compared to Lotto’s rollicking and ever-increasingly alcohol fogged escapades, it is pointed and well tuned. It fills in gaps, and reveals truths. Some are simply her truths, a changing of our viewpoint to understand her side of their marriage, while others will rock the foundations of what you believe to be true. It is both satisfying and heartbreaking.

I loved this book. There are kindnesses and cruelties, lucky breaks and terrible injustices, love and hate and great (and well written) sex. And there is incredible language: sentences that could have failed spectacularly if not for Groff’s brave and artful writing, a self awareness that could have glared painfully in lesser hands.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the first page, which perfectly shows how Groff takes you to the edge of writerly excess, and pulls you back in again, and hope you’ll go get your own copy and read the rest:

For a minute they watched a tidepool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deeps. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.

Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy through Netgalley. Fates and Furies will be released by Random House UK on September 15th, 2015.