Thursday, 17 August 2017

"Tales from India" - by Bali Rai

Wicked magicians, wise priests, handsome princes, beautiful princesses - along with greedy tigers and sly jackals. What's not to love? I'm delighted to welcome Bali Rai to the blog to talk about his new book of fairy tales and folk tales from India. Prepare for enchantment! 

This collection came about after a lunchtime conversation. It was one of those casual, almost throwaway moments. As a British-born child of Indian parents, my knowledge of Asian folk tales was shamefully limited. Of course I knew the famous ones, but they were just the beginning. My parents never had the privilege of hearing such stories at school, because they never went to school. As a result, they had no way of passing these tales on to their children.

            And in my British schools, the concept of Indian storytelling was almost non-existent. We were never taught about India’s rich folk tale heritage and ancient cultures (likewise China and Africa). Most of us didn’t realise that fairy tales and stories of talking animals existed in our parents’ traditions too. Folk tales, and stories generally, seemed to be a Western thing. It was as though we were being invited into a secret club, to which our ancestors had not previously belonged.

            So when a casual idea became a concrete project, I had to discover India’s rich folk tale heritage as a beginner. I found amazing and often magical tales, full of adventure and trickery, and infused with deeper messages about morality, Life and the world around us. From wicked magicians to wise old priests, charming princes and beautiful princesses – every aspect of the Western tales I’d heard in childhood were present here, too.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect was how similar these Indian tales were to those of the Western tradition. Of particular interest were the Indian tales compiled by Joseph Jacobs (1854-1916). These were published in 1912, and form the basis for much of this collection. Punchkin immediately reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin, and many of the animal tales would find a happy home in Aesop or Kipling.

Of course, there are many differences, too. The Indian tales feel darker in places, and perhaps more moralistic too. Neither do they make allowances for the sensitivity or age of readers. Whilst ostensibly a children’s story, in The Peacock and The Crane the penalty for pride and boastfulness is death rather than a lesson well-learnt. Ditto any modern concepts of political correctness. There are helpless and passive princesses, and wizened old crones aplenty, not to mention heroes who seem only to relish the acquisition of material wealth. However, this tallies with their western counterparts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical.

The rest of the collection comprises retellings of the Akbar and Birbal tales from India’s Mughal period, and other gems that I discovered in passing. Better known than most other Indian tales and widely read in the sub-continent, the Akbar and Birbal stories are wonderfully simple yet leave a lasting impression. Birbal is the patient and wise teacher and Akbar an often impetuous and boastful pupil. Their friendship is warm and full of charm and makes these tales a delight.

In reworking these stories, I will admit to plenty of creative licence. I wanted to make these stories accessible and readable for western audiences of all stripes. As such, many of the previously published versions needed polishing and editing. Joseph Jacob’s original versions were of particular concern and have seen the greatest changes, although the others have been re-imagined too. Keen to keep this collection secular, I have steered clear of religion where possible. I have also removed archaic and often offensive terms, as well as re-working the roles of women in one or two cases. 

Continuity and plotting were also an issue. For some of these tales, my starting point was just a few badly translated lines found online, or in obscure, often self-published books. For others, I had dense passages to work through, most of which lacked clarity. In one case, an entire section seemed to be missing. Where possible, I stuck to the original plot lines rigidly. For others, this was almost infeasible, and so I imagined and wrote new connecting scenes. All of this was done to enhance the reading experience and simplify often complicated language.

They aim of this project is to widen potential readership, and take these tales to an audience yet to benefit from reading them. Reworking folk tales can be a hazardous business, and often people become attached to their own versions of a particular tale. I meant no disrespect in modernising these tales. Think of them simply as remixes, intended to engage and enchant modern readers, and to lure them further into Indian folklore. 

'Tales from India' by Bali Rai is published by Puffin Classics

Bali Rai is the multi-award winning author of over 30 young adult, teen and children's books. His edgy, boundary-pushing writing style has made him extremely popular on the school visit circuit across the world and his books are widely taught. Passionate about promoting reading and literacy for young people, he is an ambassador for the Reading Agency’s Reading Ahead project, was involved in the BBC’s Love To Read campaign, and also speaks about issues around diversity, representation, and in defence of multiculturalism. Regularly invited to speak on panels and at conferences, he is also patron of an arts charity and a literature festival. Bali is a politics graduate and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate of letters. His first novel, (Un)arranged Marriage was published in 2001, and his most recent YA novel, Web of Darkness, won three awards and received widespread acclaim. He is currently working on a new YA title, as well as two series for younger readers. His latest title, TheHarder They Fall, is available now.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Silver Cup from Dagberg Daas

Here is a version of an old tale I used in my first book, Troll Fell’. I love the practical but horrific way this 'berg-woman' deals with her long, drooping breasts. A berg-man or berg-woman is a mound dweller, elf or troll.

In Dagberg Daas there formerly lived a berg-man with his family.  It happened once that a man who came riding past there took it into his head to ask the berg-woman for a little to drink.  She went to get some for him, but her husband bade her take it out of the poisoned barrel.  The traveller heard all this, however, and when the berg-woman handed him the cup with the drink, he threw the contents over his shoulder and rode off with the cup in his hand, as fast as his horse could gallop. The berg-woman threw her breasts over her shoulders, and ran after him as hard as she could. (The man rode off over some ploughed land where she had difficulty in following him, as she had to keep to the line of the furrows.)  When he reached the spot where Karup Stream crosses the road from Viborg to Holtebro, she was so near him that she snapped a hook (hage) off the horse’s shoe, and therefore the place has been called Hagebro ever since.  She could not cross the running water, and so the man was saved. It was seen afterwards that some drops of the liquor had fallen on the horse’s loins and taken off both hide and hair.

 From Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie, 1896

'Troll Fell' by David Wyatt

In my book 'Troll Fell' the children's father Ralf tells the tale to Gudrun his wife, and his three children:

"I was halfway over Troll Fell, tired and wet and weary, when I saw a bright light glowing from the top of the crag, and heard snatches of music gusting on the wind."

            “Curiosity killed the cat,” Gudrun muttered.

 “I turned the pony off the road and kicked him into a trot up the hillside. I was in one of our own fields, the high one called the Stonemeadow.  At the top of the slope I could hardly believe my eyes.  The whole rocky summit of the hill had been lifted up, like a great stone lid! It was resting on four stout red pillars. The space underneath was shining with golden light and there were scores, maybe hundreds of trolls, all shapes and sizes, skipping and dancing, and the noise they were making! Louder than a fair, what with bleating and baaing, mewing and catetwauling, horns wailing, drums pounding, and squeaking of one-string fiddles!”

“How could they lift the whole top of Troll Fell, Pa?” asked Sigurd.

“As easily as you take off the top of your egg,” joked Ralf. He sobered. “Who knows what powers they have, my son? I only tell what I saw, saw with my own eyes. They were feasting in the great space under the hill: all sorts of food on gold and silver dishes, and little troll servingmen jumping about between the dancers, balancing great loaded trays and never spilling a drop, clever as jugglers!  It made me laugh out loud.

            “But the pony shied.  I'd been so busy staring, I hadn't noticed this troll girl creeping up on me till she popped up right by the pony's shoulder.  She held out a beautiful golden cup filled to the brim with something steaming hot - spiced ale I thought it was, and I took it gratefully from her, cold and wet as I was!”

            “Madness!” muttered Gudrun.

            Ralf looked at the children. “Just before I gulped it down,” he said slowly, “I noticed the look on her face.  There was a gleam in her slanting eyes, a wicked sparkle!  And her ears, her hairy, pointed ears, twitched forward. I saw she was up to no good!”

“Go on!” said the children breathlessly.

Ralf leaned forwards. “So, I lifted the cup, pretending to sip.  Then I jerked the whole drink out over my shoulder.  It splashed out smoking, some on to the ground and some on to the pony's tail, where it singed off half his hair!  There's an awful yell from the troll girl, and the next thing the pony and I are off down the hill, galloping for our lives.  I've still got the golden cup on one hand – and half the trolls of Troll Fell are tearing after us!”

Soot showered into the fire.  Alf, the old sheepdog, pricked his ears. Up on the roof the troll lay flat with one large ear unfurled over the smoke-hole. Its tail lashed about like a cat’s and it was growling. But none of the humans noticed. They were too wrapped up in the story. Ralf wiped his face, his hand trembling with remembered excitement, and laughed.

“I daren’t go home,” he continued. “The trolls would have torn your mother and Hilde to pieces. I had one chance.  At the tall stone called the Finger, I turned off the road on to the big ploughed field above the mill.  The pony could go quicker over the soft ground, you see, but the trolls found it heavy going across the furrows. I got to the mill stream ahead off them, jumped off and dragged the pony through the water.  I was safe!  The trolls couldn't follow me over the brook.  They were spitting like cats and hissing like kettles.  They threw stones and clods at me, but it was nearly dawn and off they scuttled back up the hillside.  And I heard – no, I felt, through the soles of my feet, a sort of far-off grating shudder as the top of Troll Fell sank into its place again...”

Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish, HarperCollins: all three books of the Troll Trilogy are currently available in an omnibus edition entitled 'West of the Moon'

Picture credits: 'Troll Fell', unpublished illustrations by David Wyatt in author's possession: copyright David Wyatt 2004

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Naming of Dark Lords!

It's summer, the sun is actually shining (or it was): hopefully we've all got better things to do than sit indoors - and I've got a book I need to finish writing. So I'll be taking a break from this blog for a few months. While I'm away I'll be putting up some posts 'from the archives'. This one first appeared in June 2015; whether you've read it before or missed it first time around, I hope it will amuse. 


See you in the autumn! 


The Naming of Dark Lords: a difficult matter: it isn't just one of your fantasy games...

At the age of nine or so, one of my daughters co-wrote a fantasy story with her best friend. By the time they’d finished it ran to sixty or seventy pages, a wonderful joint effort – they’d sit together brainstorming and passing the manuscript to and fro, writing alternate chapters and sometimes even paragraphs. There were two heroines - one for each author - and sharing their adventures was a magical teddybear named Mr Brown, who spoke throughout in pantomime couplets. Transported to a magical world on the back of a dove called Time – who provided the neat title for the story: ‘Time Flies’ – the trio found themselves battling a Dark Lord of impeccable evil with the fabulous handle of LORD SHNUBALUT (pronounced: ‘Shnoo-ba-lutt’.)  The two young authors had grasped something critical about Dark Lords. They need to have mysterious, sonorous, even unpronounceable names.

Imagine you’re writing a High Fantasy. You’ve got your world and you’ve sorted out the culture: medieval in the countryside with its feudal system of small manors and castles; a renaissance feel to the bustling towns with their traders, guilds and scholar-wizards. The forests are the abode of elves. Heroic barbarians follow their horse-herds on the more distant plains. Goblins and dwarfs battle it out in the mountains.

And lo! your Dark Lord ariseth. And he requireth a name.

Let’s take an affectionate look at the names of a few Dark Lords. The first to come to mind is of course Tolkien’s iconic SAURON from The Lord of the Rings.  A name not too difficult to pronounce, you’d think – except that when the films came out I discovered I’d been getting it wrong for years. I’d always assumed the ‘saur’ element should be pronounced as in ‘dinosaur’, and ‘Saw-ron’, with its hint of scaly, cold-blooded menace, still sounds better to me than ‘Sow-ron.’ I was only 13 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and although I was blown away, and keen enough to wade through some of the Appendices, I never got as far as Appendix E in which Tolkien explains that ‘au’ and ‘aw’ are to be pronounced ‘as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.’ But who reads the Appendices until they’ve read the entire book? - by which time I’d been getting it wrong for months and my incorrect pronunciation was fixed. Still, there it is. Peter Jackson got it right and I was wrong.

Not content with one Dark Lord, Tolkien created two - three, if you count the otherwise anonymous Witch-King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul and the scariest of the bunch if you want my opinion.  In The Silmarillion Melkor is given the name MORGOTH after destroying the Two Trees and stealing the Silmarils. In Sindarin the name means ‘Dark Enemy’ or ‘Black Foe’, but Tolkien must have been aware that its second element conjures the 5th century Goths who sacked Rome and that, additionally, the name carries echoes of MORDRED, King Arthur’s illegitimate son by his half-sister Morgan le Fay. Of course Mordred is not a high fantasy Dark Lord, but he’s certainly a force for chaos and darkness. Though the name is actually derived from the Welsh Medraut (and ultimately the Latin Moderatus), to a modern English ear it suggests the French for death, ‘le mort’, along with the English ‘dread’: a pleasing combination for a villain. Mordred and Morgoth are names redolent of fear, death and darkness, and the ‘Mor’ element appears again in Sauron’s realm of ‘Mordor’, the Black Land.  

The name of JK Rowling’s LORD VOLDEMORT is also suggestive of death and borrows some of the dark glamour of Mordred, but the circumlocutory phrase HE-WHO-MUST-NOT-BE-NAMED (used by his enemies for fear of conjuring him up) certainly owes something to H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha, SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED. Interestingly, males become Dark Lords but females are never Dark Ladies – which doesn’t have the same ring at all*. They turn into Dread Queens, such as Galadriel might have become if she had succumbed to temptation and taken the Ring from Frodo:

In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and Lighting! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!

Coming down to us from many an ancient goddess, Dread Queens are usually beautiful, sexual women of great power and cruelty, like T.H. White’s MORGAUSE, Queen of Orkney from The Once And Future King, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive. In his notes about her, T.H. White wrote:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women.  Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood.  Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone.  Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood, power, sexism and racism: White is clearly very frightened of this woman. He didn’t find her character in Le Morte D’Arthur: Malory’s Morgawse is a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous – but her half-sister MORGAN LE FAY is an enchantress whose name is derived from the Old Welsh/Old Breton Morgen, connected with water spirits and meaning ‘Sea-born’. A final example drawn from Celtic legend is Alan Garner’s ‘MORRIGAN’, a name variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen, depending this time on whether the ‘Mor’ element is written with a diacritical or not. Enough already!

Not every Dark Lord’s name works as well as Sauron and Voldemort. I’m underwhelmed by Stephen Donaldson’s ‘LORD FOUL THE DESPISER’ from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever. Donaldson seems jumpily aware of the long shadow of Tolkien. He struggles to produce convincing names: for example ‘Drool Rockworm’ the Cavewight whose name to my mind belongs not in the Land, but in the Discworld. I've always thought that to name a Dark Lord ‘Lord Foul’ is barely trying, and tagging ‘the Despiser’ on to it doesn’t help. (‘He’s foul, I'm telling you! He’s really foul! I’ll prove it – he despises things too!’) Tacking an adjective or adverb on to a fantasy name often only weakens it, as in the case of the orc-lord AZOG THE DEFILER whom Peter Jackson introduced to the film version of The Hobbit. Azog is to be found in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien writes in laconic prose modelled on the Icelandic sagas, of how Azog killed Thrór, hewed off his head and cut his name on the forehead (thus indeed defiling the corpse).

Then Nár turned the head and saw branded on it in Dwarf-runes so that he could read it the name AZOG. That name was branded in his heart and in the hearts of all the Dwarves afterwards.

Just ‘Azog’, you see? The name on its own is quite enough.

Donaldson is trying to emulate Tolkien’s linguistic density, in which proper names from different languages pile up into accumulated richness like leafmould: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, Nanduhirion. But we cannot all be philologists. Lord Foul’s various sobriquets, which include ‘The Gray Slayer’, ‘Fangthane the Render’, ‘Corruption’, and ‘a-Jeroth of the Seven Hells’, only suggest to me an author having a number of stabs at something he knows in his heart he isn’t quite getting right. ‘Fangthane’?  A word which means ‘sharp tooth’ attached to a word which means ‘a man who holds land from his overlord and owes him allegiance’? It could work for a Gríma Wormtongue, but not for a Dark Lord.

Dark Lords are a strange clan. Why anyone over the age of eighteen would wish to dress entirely in black and live at the top of a draughty tower in the midst of a poisoned wasteland is something of a mystery, unless perhaps Dark Lords are younger than we think. If they’re actually no older than Vyvyan from The Young Ones, it could totally explain their continuously bad temper, their desire to impress, their attacks on mild mannered, law-abiding citizens (aka parents), their taste in architecture (painting the bedroom black and decorating it with heavy metal posters) and their penchant for logos incorporating spiderwebs, fiery eyes, skulls, etc.

It probably also explains their peculiar names. Most teenage boys at some point reject the names their parents picked for them and go in for inexplicable nicknames like Fish, Grazz, or Bazzer… Anyway, the all-out winner of the Dark Lord Weird Name competition has got to be Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies are written in prose as delicate and strong as steel snowflakes. Ombria In Shadow is one of my all-time favourites. But the Dark Lord in her early trilogy The Riddle-Master rejoices in (or is cursed with) the altogether unpronounceable and eye-boggling GHISTELWCHLOHM.

He wins hands down. Lord Schnubalut, eat your heart out.

*The pun was unintentional.

Picture credits:

Cover detail from The Fellowship of the Ring, George Allen and Unwin (author's possession)

Melkor, Wikimedia commons,
Morgan le Fay  by Frederick Sandys (1864)

Adrian Edmonson as Vyvyan Basterd from The Young Ones