Naturally Dyed Eggs For Ostara

With spring arriving, it’s almost time to celebrate Ostara and the vernal equinox. This year, it falls on March 20th. The vernal equinox is when night and day are mostly equal, signalling the end of the dark winter nights.

Ostara is one of the Pagan sabbats, and takes its name from the goddess Ostara. She is a goddess of new life, associated with the spring as this is when the earth awakens after the cold of winter. Take some time to plant seeds, gather wildflowers, or go for a long walk to appreciate the new growth which surrounds us.

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts
Ostara by Johannes Gehrts. Image in the public domain – source

As symbols of life and fertility, eggs are also sacred to Ostara. Decorating eggs is a fun, traditional activity which everyone can take part in. You could paint their shells, or if you want some messy, outdoor fun then these egg seed bombs and confetti bombs look amazing.

I had a go at dyeing eggs naturally using vegetables, and made this little guide from my experience. These make a pretty addition to any picnic, and great homemade gifts!

You will need:

  • eggs – try to find ones with pale shells, as the colours will show up better on these
  • salt
  • onion skins – lots of them! Both red and white work, it just depends on the colour you want the eggs to be
  • beetroot
  • stiff gardening twine or elastic bands
  • flowers/leaves – either dried or fresh will work
  • olive oil
  • saucepans

Prepare the Dye

If you’re using both beetroot and onion skins, you’ll need a separate saucepan for each of them. I used three small beetroots and my dye turned out quite pale, so perhaps use larger ones or add more for a stronger colour. With the onion skins, I just used white ones. It’s up to you whether you want to mix white and red together, or separate them and use a third saucepan. Be sure to leave some of the larger skins out, as you’ll need them to wrap the eggs in later.

Ostara naturally dyed eggs

Fill each saucepan with enough cold water to cover the contents, add a little salt, and put them on a medium heat. Once they start boiling, let them simmer on a lower heat. The beetroot should take around 30-40 minutes to cook depending on the size and quantity, and it will take around 30 minutes for the colour to come out of the onion skins.

Cook the Eggs

Next, hard boil some eggs. To do this, put a saucepan of cold water on a medium heat and add a bit of salt. Once the water is boiling, add the eggs and let them simmer for approximately 12 minutes (or put an egg timer in with them like I did). Once the eggs are done, remove them from the water and put them in a dish to cool. DO NOT remove the shells.

Once the beetroot and onion skins are done, take them off the heat. Remove the beetroot and do with it whatever you like doing with beetroot (for me this was immediately calling for my partner to come and eat it since I can’t stand the stuff, sorry beetroot!) but leave the onion skins in the water. Leave both pans to cool. They don’t need to be completely cold, just cool enough so that they won’t cook the eggs further.

Next comes the tedious bit! Take your cooled eggs and wrap them in the leftover onion skins, securing them with the garden twine or elastic bands. Press the flowers and leaves onto the eggs underneath the skins, and they will take on the imprint of these once in the dye (mine didn’t work fantastically for 3 reasons – not enough beetroot, not enough onion skins left to completely cover the eggs, and I used sewing thread instead of twine which was too loose to hold the flowers in place. So make sure you avoid my mistakes!)

Ostara naturally dyed eggs

Once your eggs are wrapped, check the saucepans of dye. If they’re still hot, you can either wait a bit longer or top them up with cold water. However, bear in mind that adding water will dilute the colour. When you’re ready, place the eggs into the dyes. Make sure they are completely submerged.

Ostara naturally dyed eggs

The Long Wait

Initially I left my eggs for around 1 hour, and by then the onion dye had started to stick to the eggshells but it wasn’t very bright. The beetroot hadn’t done anything (I found out afterwards that if you put the beetroot dye in the fridge it’s more potent, so if yours is also pale try that!) I ended up leaving them overnight, and the following morning they were much better.

Once you’ve left your eggs for a significant amount of time and you’re happy with the results, remove and unwrap them. Pat them dry with a tea towel, and then use kitchen roll to rub a little olive oil on them. This will make them nice and glossy, so the colours look brighter.

And there you have it – beautiful, naturally dyed eggs! They will keep in the fridge for up to 1 week, giving you plenty of time to admire and show off your handiwork before you eat them.

Ostara naturally dyed eggs

There are other natural things besides onions and beetroot which you can use to make different colours of dye. This article uses cabbage, spices, and tea, and this one uses fruit and vinegar. Let your inner kitchen witch run wild and have fun experimenting! Tweet your dyed egg pictures to me @amyelize – I’d love to see them!

 

Japanese Folklore: Lucky Rice Cakes and the Moon Rabbit

Japan moon rabbit rice folklore

Most people know that rice is a prevalent food in Japan. But apart from being a source of nutrition, rice also has cultural and folkloric significance attached to it.

New Year Mochi

Much of Japan’s folklore is based on the concept of animism, due to the ancient Shinto belief that every object has a spirit. This belief extends to rice plants, with many Japanese people believing that they contain good energy. Therefore, eating products made from rice will bring good luck. This is especially true at the beginning of a new year. Mochi, a sticky, sweet cake made from pounded rice, is used as a new year decoration and eaten in early January. This type of mochi is called ‘kagami mochi.’ It is composed of two mochi cakes adorned with daidai (bitter orange) and leaves. It is believed that eating the kagami mochi will bring you strength and luck for the coming year.

Kagami mochi
Kagami mochi. Image in the public domain – source

Mochi making is also popular in January. Many places have events called ‘mochi-tsuki‘ where community members get together to make mochi. As well as the belief that eating mochi is good luck for the new year, mochi-tsuki is a time to come together and have fun!

I was able to attend a mochi-tsuki event in a nearby town, and it was a great experience. I learned how mochi is made, and got to take part in the process. Firstly, the rice is soaked, usually overnight. Then, it is steamed. Fires were lit, and steamers containing the rice were placed over them. After steaming, the rice is moved into a traditional Japanese mortar, which is called an usu. It is then squashed and pounded with a kine, a large wooden mallet. It’s very heavy and awkward to use, and also scary – whilst the pounding is going on, someone has to rearrange to mochi to keep it in shape. Get the timing wrong and they would definitely end up with broken fingers!

Pounding mochi
My friend and I using kine to pound the mochi. Image my own.

After being pounded, the mochi is placed on a tray of flour and separated into small chunks. These are shaped into balls by first pulling them into a circle, then folding the sides together and twisting so they stick. It’s a lot harder than it looks, because the flour makes the outside of the mochi quite dry. But without it, it would be too sticky.

Mochitsuki
Shaping mochi into balls (ie. getting myself completely covered in flour…) Image my own.

After that, flavourings are added to the mochi before eating it. We used kinako (roasted soy bean flour, yum!) and soy sauce. It was wonderful to see people of all ages working together to make and eat the mochi.

Rice is also associated with another celebration later in the year. In Autumn, dango (a sweet rice paste ball similar to mochi) is eaten during harvest festivals called Tsukimi or Jugoya. These festivals take place on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, which is usually a full moon night in August or September. People gather in gardens and at temples to celebrate the year’s crops and the beauty of the moon. Symbolically, dango represents the moon and is eaten as an offering to bring good health.

月の兎 Tsukino Usagi – The Moon Rabbit

Japan moon rabbit rice folklore
The location of the rabbit on the surface of the moon. Next time the moon is full, have a look and see if you can see it! The rectangle is the block containing the pounded mochi. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Besides good fortune and symbolism, mochi has another connection to the moon. In Western countries, there are stories of the man in the moon. But in Japanese folklore, instead it’s a mochi-making rabbit.

According to legend, an old man who lived on the moon decided to visit Earth. He asked a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit for food. The monkey climbed a tree and brought him some fruit, and the fox caught him a fish. But the rabbit, unable to bring anything, instead built a fire and jumped into it to be cooked. The old man pulled him out and praised his kind sacrifice, and as a reward took the rabbit back to the moon with him.

Japan moon rabbit rice folklore
In Japan, moon rabbits are popular images for wall hangings, quilts, and other soft furnishings. Image from Japan Coolture.

Other Asian countries also have moon rabbits in their folklore. In China, the moon rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e. Instead of pounding mochi, it pounds the elixir of life. In Korea, the moon rabbit also pounds mochi but stands underneath a gyesu tree (Korean cinnamon tree). They also have a mid-Autumn festival to celebrate the moon, which is called Chuseok.

White rabbits are a popular motif in Japan, and can often be found on things like crockery, linen, and chopsticks. Also, fans of the anime Sailor Moon will probably recognise the name ‘Tsukino Usagi.’ Yes – Sailor Moon herself is literally called ‘rabbit of the moon’ in Japanese! That’s also how she ended up being called ‘Bunny’ in the Italian translation.

Sailor Moon Crystal
Sailor Moon, aka. Usagi Tsukino. She also likes to eat mochi! Image by source, fair use

Personally, I prefer the Asian idea of a rabbit on the moon. As a child, I always found it a little bit creepy to think of the moon as a man’s face watching us every night. Tsukino Usagi is a much-loved and celebrated part of Japanese culture, which combines folklore, food, and nature. Whether eating mochi in January truly brings good fortune or not, it ensures that each new year in Japan begins with community spirit and sharing good food. What a fantastic combination, and hopefully a way for the year to start as it means to go on.

Sources

The Moon Rabbit in Legend and Culture

Jugoya – The Full Moon Festival in Japan

 

Fairy Tale Hearts: Organs or Intuition?

I’ve been thinking a lot about hearts recently. They’re funny things, aren’t they? Or at least our perception of them is. When we talk of hearts, instead of organs pumping blood around our bodies they become personified; magical things capable of love and adventure. They are strong and wild, and do not listen to reason. Can’t explain why you feel a certain way? Must be your heart’s doing. They defy all rational explanation, and yet still we put so much emphasis on following them.

Susan Fletcher Witch Light

Personally, I don’t think the word ‘heart’ is the only word to use. ‘Intuition,’ ‘instinct,’ and ‘gut’ have the same meaning. Basically, paying attention to something other than logic. Something you feel rather than think.

The heart of something is the core of it; the very essence of its being. The part where the thing (or person) in question is at its most. In fairy tales, hearts are often coveted as trophies – either for love or revenge. Think of Snow White. In some versions of the story, the evil (step)mother demands that the huntsman brings her Snow White’s heart as proof that he has killed her. Symbolically, it is not just an organ she is after. The heart contains Snow White’s vitality. It’s the most personal, violating thing she can take to exert her superiority.

Snow White by Franz Jüttner. Image in the public domain – source

As SurLaLune notes, in earlier versions of the story it was Snow White’s lungs and liver which the queen requested. Connotatively, these have little difference to the heart. Lungs represent the spirit, and in medieval times the liver was the organ associated with love and erotic feeling.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy novel Howl’s Moving Castle and the Studio Ghibli film of the same name, Wizard Howl is feared because rumour dictates that he eats the hearts of young girls. This could be a metaphor, implying that instead of literally ‘eating’ hearts he charms girls and then casts them aside. That’s bad enough, and brings in the idea of a broken heart – if you hurt someone, maybe their ‘heart’ will no longer work properly and so it might as well have been eaten. But as this is a fantasy world where anything is possible (I mean, there’s a sentient fire, a moving castle, and a living scarecrow to name a few!), there’s no reason why he couldn’t be a literal heart-eating wizard. And what an abhorrent crime! To eat someone’s heart; their private, personal emotions. To remove and destroy their abilities to love and to be themselves.

Howl's Moving Castle quote
Howl’s Moving Castle. Image my own.

If you know the story, you will know that Wizard Howl isn’t what he appears. In fact, he separated himself from his own heart because its feelings were too much to bear. In the words of the main protagonist Sophie Hatter, ‘a heart is a heavy burden’ (I won’t write any more because spoilers. If you haven’t seen/read Howl’s Moving Castle then I highly recommend that you do both!)

A heart is more than just an organ. It’s a complex, abstract entity, governed by forces we cannot understand. It contains our innermost desires and feelings. It’s fragile. Take care of it. Also, obey it. Hearts serve older laws than our modern ways of living. If you cannot explain how you feel or why you want something illogical, that is your heart speaking. You may not like what it says, but you can never deny that it is true. Because you can feel it.

Mat Devine heart quote

This year, try to listen. Is your heart telling you something? If so, pay attention, no matter how hard it is to hear. Listening to your heart takes courage. To ignore it is to compromise yourself. Make changes, and strive for what you really want. It’ll all work out, but you need to take the risk first. Just make sure no-one eats your heart before you get the message… unless it’s Howl who is offering, because let’s face it, he’s totally gorgeous…

Happy New Year my loves!

Sources

 

Deer Folklore: Faerie Cattle, Sacred Sika, and Our Wild Sides

I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.

Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.

Deer in Scotland

Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.

If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.

Glencoe deer
Deer in Glencoe, Scotland. Image from Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’

In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.

Deer in Japan

In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.

Kasuga Shrine deer painting
Silk painting of a Nara deer at Kasuga Shrine. Image in the public domain – source

The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!

Nara Park deer
Sika deer in Nara Park, Japan. Images my own

Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?

I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.

Kasuga Shrine
Torii gate at the entrance of the path leading to Kasuga Shrine, and my deer o-mikuji (thankfully it was a good one!) Images my own

Deer in Fairy Tales

In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.

Arthur Rackham Little Brother and Little Sister
Little Brother and Little Sister by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.

Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.

Nara Park deer
Me feeding a sika deer in Nara Park. Image my own.

Sources

  • John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
  • Fairy Women & Their Deer‘ on The Faery Folklorist
  • Jo Woolf, ‘Ossian’s Cave in Glen Coe‘ on The Hazel Tree
  • Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ available online here
  • Heidi Anne Heiner, ‘Annotations for Brother & Sister‘ on SurLaLune

 

My Melody: Sanrio’s Little Red Riding Hood

Maybe you’ve heard of Hello Kitty, and how she’s actually a British schoolgirl (if not then read that article & prepare to gawp with incredulity for at least 10 minutes). But what about Sanrio’s other characters? There are many of them, each with their own stories. In the case of My Melody, her origins are entwined with a well-known fairy tale.

My Melody is a little girl bunny, who was released by Sanrio in 1975. According to her character bio, she was born in a forest. She is often depicted playing amongst trees with her woodland animal friends. She also wears a hood, which nowadays is usually pink, but when she was first introduced it was red. This hood was made by her grandmother.

In 1976, a children’s book was published in Japan featuring My Melody as Little Red Riding Hood. It was reprinted in 2015, and I was lucky enough to find a copy of this edition.

My Melody Little Red Riding Hood
Image my own

The title reads ‘My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text in red literally translates as ‘Akazukin’ which is the Japanese name for ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ The text at the bottom translates as ‘Little Red Riding Hood! Be careful of the wolf!’

Here are some of the inside pages:

My Melody and her mother pack a basket for granny. Image my own.
My Melody sets off into the woods. Image my own.
The wolf disguises himself as granny. Image my own.
The wolf eats granny and she is saved by the woodcutter. They stitch the wolf up, and he runs away (into a tree, silly wolf!) Image my own.

I find it interesting that Sanrio decided to use My Melody for this fairy tale. Rabbits are prey animals, so in this story the wolf is taunted by having its meal turn on it. Also, this is a good example of how fairy tales can travel and evolve for different audiences. For Japanese children, Little Red Riding Hood is a foreign fairy tale. Perhaps attaching it to a familiar character makes it more appealing to them.

My Melody is very popular in Japan. Now that I live here, I am taking full advantage of this. Many people who know me will say that I like Hello Kitty. Whilst this is true to a degree, in England I grew to like her out of lack of choice. But I’m sorry everyone, I have a confession: My Melody is actually my favourite! Whenever I’ve needed something, I have found a My Melody option. Here are some of the more obscure ways in which she is taking over my life, filling it with her little pink ears one thing at a time…

All images my own.

Cleaning Wipes

My Melody cleaning wipes
So my apartment is cute as well as clean!

Chopsticks

My Melody chopsticks
Because obviously food tastes better if the implements for eating it with are adorable. Also, it’s not shown in the picture, but written on the side of these it says ‘once upon a time, there lived a little rabbit who always wore a red hood.’

Nail Files

My Melody nail files
My Melody and her friends do a fantastic job of smoothing my snags!

Duvet Cover

My Melody duvet cover
Warm, cosy, and almost as soft as a real rabbit!

Bottle Holder

My Melody bottle cover
Keeps my water cool, my bag dry, and my bottles pink!

My Melody’s Little Red Riding Hood is a cute fairy tale bridge between cultures, and I hope to encounter more of her stories in the future.

 

Meinichi: Remembering and Loving, Forever

August 26th. From 2009 onwards, I am able to tell you what I was doing on this day every year. Every summer, for those twenty-four hours, I’m sixteen again and wondering how life can be so cruel.

In my hometown, the summer after high school is all about exam results, first jobs in beach shops, firework displays, and long walks home by the sea because you missed the last bus. Usual teenage stuff. What’s not on the list is to lose one of your close friends forever.

‘Cancer.’ Only six letters. Two syllables. Just another word in the English language, nothing more. But that is enough to destroy. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what Cancer was. I knew it was an illness and that it could be fatal, but I didn’t know what causes it or how it is treated. And why should I have known? I was young and healthy, and no-one I knew had been chronically ill before. It wasn’t part of my world. When Laura was diagnosed, I just assumed she would get better. Okay, it might take a long time, and she would have to go to hospital a lot so I wouldn’t see her in school as often, but then eventually she would be okay and things would return to normal.

I sent her letters, and messages on Bebo with pixelated hearts. We talked about all the things we would do when she recovered – sleepovers, day trips to London, and what colleges we wanted to go to. This Cancer business was just a blip; a mark on the present which would soon go away.

When I got the phone call, I didn’t answer it because it was a private number. Laura’s mum left a message and asked my mum to call her back. I thought that was strange, but didn’t worry too much. Parents talk to each other all the time, right? So I gave mum my phone and went back to Photoshopping pictures for dA and singing along to anime soundtracks. Then I got the second call to come downstairs.

When mum told me the news, I didn’t know how to respond. Is there even a correct way? I didn’t cry, or say anything. I just stood there in the kitchen, trying to make sense of what I had heard. Mum hugged me, and was stroking my back and saying ‘oh darling, it’s okay’ but it never is, is it? I think I was in shock. Mum told me I didn’t have to go to work that evening, that I should stay home and give myself ‘time.’ But I felt okay. I felt nothing. If I stayed at home, what good would that do? The shop was busy, & my colleagues needed me. So off I went.

Two hours later, it hit me. I locked myself in the staff toilets, then curled up on the floor and cried.

Melted candle

Six Augusts have passed since then. For every one, I have lit a candle for Laura and sat for a few moments to remember her, and tell the universe how much I love and miss her. For this seventh year, I’m in Japan. Here, death anniversaries are called ‘meinichi,’ which literally translates as ‘life date.’ It is customary to mark meinichi by visiting graves, temples, or shrines to pray and burn incense for the deceased. Shinto shrines are some of the most serene, inviting places I have ever come across, so finding one to do my annual reflection seemed like a wonderful idea.

At the weekend I was visiting Okayama, a calm, peach-filled city in southern Japan. I had a bike and a fabulous tour guide, who led me to Munetada Shrine. The entrance was on a bustling main road, but inside the peace I’ve come to associate with shrines was there nonetheless. I’m sure that torii gates are portals, because every time I pass through one it’s as though the outside world ceases to exist. Even the sticky summer heat seemed to relent.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Torii gate at the entrance of Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Firstly, I went to the fountain and performed the cleansing ritual, tearai, which involves using a small bowl on a stick to wash your hands and face. From there, walked to the front of the shrine and tossed a coin into the donation box. Then I shook the rope to ring the bell, bowed twice and clapped twice to greet the deities, then sent them my thoughts. Please, send my best wishes to Laura. Let her know that I’m thinking of her still. Carry my love to her.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
The fountain with the wash bowls at Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Another bow, and then I sat on a bench beneath a tree. I remembered her smile, and us singing to Hannah Montana songs. It struck me how much things change. Exactly seven years ago, I was just out of high school and unsure of my future. In the time since then, I’ve been through college, university, and moved to a foreign country. Before I moved, I met up with most of my other friends from high school; renewing bonds after years of growth and change. They’re all doing their own amazing things – studying, working, travelling. Some even have children of their own. We’re all women now, twenty-somethings taking on the world. But Laura will always be sixteen. I couldn’t help wondering what she would be doing, if she were still here. What would the last seven years have given her? Maybe we would also have sat in Starbucks, exchanging gossip over fruit coolers and Nutella cookies, before I boarded my plane.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Donation box and bell ropes. Image my own.

Because of Laura, I have learned to not to be complacent, to be wary of any and all illnesses, and to live life to the full regardless. There are so many things she never got the chance to do, but in a way, we’re all doing them for her. I know I’m not the only one of my high school friends who keeps memories of her close by.

I don’t know where I’ll be for Laura’s future meinichis, but I know for certain that I will continue to mark them somehow for the rest of my life. Remembering her is an integral part of my summer. Maybe, if I have children, when I’m gone too each August 26th they will light a candle and say ‘mum used to do this every year. It’s a tradition.’ And so, like that we remember and are remembered. With flames and thoughts, bells and bows, and most importantly, with love.

Laura with her poodle, London

Storytelling: Test Valley Festival June 2016

Test Valley Festival

Live in England (preferably Hampshire!) and want to hear some fairy tales?

On Sunday 12th June, along with my friend and fellow storyteller Claire Kerry, I am are going to be storytelling at Test Valley Garden & Literary Festival! We’re doing short performances of lesser-known fairy tales, including ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ ‘Bremen Town Musicians,’ and ‘Snow White Fire Red.’

Test Valley Festival storytelling

We’re so excited and honoured to be a part of this new event. Celebrating nature and literature in one festival, what could be better?! We’re also looking forward to meeting new people and having fun doing what we love. There are lots of other great activities too, including craft workshops, live music, gardening talks and demonstrations, art displays, and poetry readings.

For more information and tickets, please visit the Test Valley Festival website.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

Update: Event Recap

Despite the rain, the festival was a great success and we had many visitors to our little story gazebo! If anything, the weather only added to the charm of the day. Nothing like a great British summertime festival with a good helping of mud and wellies! Thank you to everyone who attended and supported the event. Here are some photos of Claire & I and our fairy tale antics.

 

 

Tsukumogami: Japan’s Household Spirits

Imagine going to boil some water, but your kettle transforms into a raccoon and runs away. Or turning a light on, to find your paper lampshade grinning at you and waggling a long tongue. You might have a spirit problem, but these are no ordinary poltergeists. Meet the tsukumogami.

Tsukumogami (付喪神) is the collective name given to a type of yōkai (Japanese spirits or monsters) which are haunted household objects. It’s a Shinto belief that everything has a spirit, so in Japanese folklore it’s possible for inanimate objects to become sentient. The transformation occurs on their one-hundredth birthday, as only after serving people for a century can objects gain souls. If the object has been mistreated in that century, it becomes vengeful and causes havoc for its current owner. So if you buy second-hand things, beware! If their previous owner was unkind, unfortunately you’re the one they’ll unleash their wrath on. Tsukumogami’s powers range from mildly irritating to murderous, and they are known for teaming up to maximise their scare factor. They also like to wander the streets at night to meet others of their kind.

If a household object exists, there is likely to be a tsukumogami version of it. Here are some of the most notorious...

目目連 Mokumokuren (watchful paper screens)

Japanese-style houses feature room dividers called shōji, which are paper screens. If there are holes in the shōji, it is believed that ghostly eyes can fill them and watch the residents of the house. These are called mokumokuren, and although harmless they are very creepy. Mokumokuren literally translates as ‘many eyes.’ They are one of the staple inhabitants of any haunted Japanese house. Thankfully it’s easy to get rid of them; all you have to do is repair the holes.

Mokumokuren
Mokumokuren by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

化け草履 Bakezōri (sandal ghosts)

If you hear noises in the night, then it’s most likely a pair of bakezōri. Traditional Japanese sandals, called zōri, are a type of flip flop made from rice straw. If they are old and mistreated, they are likely to grow arms, legs, and one eye to transform into bakezōri. These tsukumogami enjoy running around in the dark and causing mischief. They also repeat this chant: Kararin! Kororin! Kankororin! Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai!

Managu mittsu ni ha ninmai translates as ‘three eyes and two teeth.’ Zōri have three holes where their straps are attached, so ‘three eyes’ perhaps refers to these. ‘Two teeth’ makes a little less sense, unless they are geta sandals which have two wooden blocks on their soles. The other words are nonsensical.

茂林寺の釜 Morinji-no-Okama (haunted tea kettle)

Iron tea kettles are used in Japan to heat water on stoves to make tea. The Morinji-no-kama is a tea kettle with a spirit trapped inside. A well-known Japanese folktale called ‘Bunbuku Chagama’ is about a tanuki (Japanese raccoon) which transforms into a tea kettle.

Bunbuku Chagama
Bunbuku Chagama – source

やまおろし Yamaoroshi (porcupine possessed grater)

Sticking with the theme of kitchen appliances which transform into animals, this one is my favourite. Purely because it’s so bizarre. The name yamaoroshi is a pun of sorts – yamaarashi is the Japanese word for  porcupine, and oroshi is the word for grater (as in cheese or vegetable grater). Put them together, you get a yamaoroshi. A porcupine grater. Apparently, when a grater becomes dull and can no longer be used, its slicers transform into spines and it grows legs.

I’m confused as to why this tsukumogami even exists, because I’m pretty sure that there’s no cheese in Japan which is actually big enough to grate… I once bought what I thought was a tub of cream cheese, but when I opened the box it was actually individually-wrapped chunks about the size of my thumbnail. You can barely even spread that, let alone grate it! It was a sad day. Also, the rule is that a household object has to be 100 years old to become a tsukumogami. Who keeps a grater for over 100 years?! That would be some random family heirloom. I can just imagine it on the Antiques Roadshow, ‘yes, here’s my century-old grater. Careful, it could turn into a porcupine at any moment!’

Yama Oroshi by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

一反木綿 Ittan-Momen (flying roll of cotton)

If you’re a dressmaker, beware of this one! Ittan-Momen is a long sheet of cloth used to make clothes, which flies around at night and attacks people by wrapping itself around them. Sometimes it smothers them, if it goes for the face. This malicious tsukumogami is most commonly found in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Ittan-Momen, Sakaiminato
Me riding an Ittan-Momen in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture. Much smoother than the shinkansen! Image my own.

提灯お化け Chōchin-Obake (haunted paper lantern)

Chōchin lanterns are the iconic paper or silk lanterns with bamboo frames which are a common sight in Japan. Because of their fragility, when they get old they are likely to split. These splits form eyes and a wide mouth with a long tongue hanging out of it. Chōchin can also become inhabited by vengeful spirits. If such a chōchin is lit, the spirit will be released and attack the lighter.

傘おばけ Kasa-Obake (umbrella ghost)

If neglected, old umbrellas will become kasa-obake. There are one of the most commonly-known yōkai, but strangely there are no stories about them. They only exist in folklore and images. It is thought they were created by oral storytellers in the Edo period, when there was a demand for new folklore characters. Kasa-obake are closed umbrellas with one eye, and they jump around using the handle as a leg.

暮露暮露団 Boroboroton (murderous futon)

Futons are Japanese bedrolls. If they are not well cared for, then they may turn into a Borobororton. When the owner is asleep, the Borobororton wraps itself around them and strangles them in revenge for its mistreatment. It then stumbles around the house and strangles any other sleepers it finds. One of the first things I did when I moved into my Japanese apartment was air the old futons!

 

Boroboroton Toriyama Sekien
Boroboroton by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

Next time you clean your house, think about airing your mattress and giving those old shoes in the bottom of your wardrobe a clean. Hang pictures over holes in your walls, and make sure any rolls of fabric are tightly bound. And be sure to look after your cheese grater. Just in case.

 

Sources

 

Fairy Tales: Fly Away Home & Meeting Marina Warner

Last week, I travelled to the University of Chichester for a talk and book signing with Marina Warner, hosted by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. When I saw this event being advertised I knew I had to go, because Marina Warner. Enough said.

IMG_4985

Instead of reading from her new short story collection, Fly Away Home, Marina read a couple of off-cuts which didn’t make it into the final book. Both of these were inspired by some of Kiki Smith’s sculptures, which were themselves inspired by stories. I love how creativity can go on like this, in a chain of inspiration, from one art form to another.

After the readings, there was a short discussion and Q&A session. Marina spoke about how she believes fairy tales and folktales don’t age because they contain artificial structures. Almost like a grid, these tales have a feeling of a mythical past which can be reworked. So long as that feeling remains in some way, the tales live. They can be altered using their motifs or emotional content, and these alterations create new retellings. There is no progress as such, just constant change.

Fairy tales and folk tales are also timeless because they contain perpetually relevant topics, for example love, death, war, relationships, and nature. These will always be important, and so it’s always worthwhile to tell stories about them them.

From what I’ve read so far, many of the stories in Fly Away Home feature characters who undergo change. Transformation is threatening for some people, but it’s impossible to go back in time. As Marina herself said, nostalgia always has to be defeated in order to move on.

Image from Salt Publishing.

Marina also discussed the notion of fairy tales and myths as a way of exploring identity. Storytelling is a cultural activity, and it’s crucial to remember this now with so many people on the move and refugees being driven away from their home countries. We need to remember that they need space for their own stories and heritage in the new places they inhabit. Culture is an exchange, and stories are a driving force behind this.

As well as getting a signed copy of Fly Away Home, I also got my much-loved copy of Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale signed. This is a useful and insightful little book, and I highly recommend it to fairy tale fans. It’s concise enough to be a great starting point, and in-depth enough to supplement existing knowledge.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 14.37.09

Marina was very friendly, and the whole conference was was a great experience. Not only is it wonderful to meet writers in person to hear them read from and discuss their work, it’s also wonderful to attend events like this and mingle with like-minded people. Thank you to the Sussex Centre for hosting this event, and to Marina for being a constant source of inspiration.

Small Ways to Celebrate Imbolc

Imbolc (pronounced ‘EE-muk’ or ‘IM-bulk’) falls on the 2nd February. It is the Pagan equivalent of the Christian Candlemas, and similarly it is also a festival of lights. Imbolc marks the return of the Goddess after her journey to the underworld. With her comes the first signs of Spring – the evenings are slowly becoming lighter, lambs are starting to be born, and snowdrops and daffodils begin to sprout. It is a time to celebrate the light, and focus on the bright times ahead now that winter is dwindling. The word ‘imbolc’ literally means ‘in the belly,’ referring to nature as it waits patiently in the belly of the earth during the last few weeks of cold before bursting through. The Irish/Celtic Goddess Brigid (pronounced ‘Breed’) is also celebrated on Imbolc. She is a Goddess sacred to many things, but most notably fertility, poetry, healing, and fire. The hearth is her domain, and so is the forge – smithery is also associated with her.

Finding time and resources to have a full-blown celebration can be difficult, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the Imbolc goodness! Here are 5 small things you can do to mark the occasion. Choose one (or more!) which resonate with you, and then you’re all set to have your own little Imbolc celebration.

 

1. Make a Brigid’s Cross

Traditionally made in Ireland on Imbolc, these crosses symbolise the beginning of spring. They are woven from wheat, rushes, or grass. If you cannot get hold of any of those, pipe cleaners, string, or strips of paper make good alternatives. Hang your Brigid’s Cross somewhere in your house to ward off evil and hunger.

Once you’ve gathered your material, this video tutorial shows you how to make it into a Brigid’s Cross:


 

2. Light Candles. Lots of Candles!

Imbolc is a celebration of light. Get your home looking bright and warm with some candles! As it’s also the beginning of Spring, it’s traditional to have a good clean on Imbolc. Dust your shelves, sweep the floors, and throw open all the windows to let in some fresh air. When you’re finished, light a white candle in each room (just make sure you don’t forget about them – it may be a fire festival, but burning your house down would be a bit extreme!) Sit in front of one of the flames and watch it flicker for a few moments, and let it fill you with its peaceful warmth.

Image my own

3. Burn Paper Snowflakes

Paper snowflakes can be made easily by folding small pieces of paper in half, cutting shapes out of the edges with scissors, and then opening them out. Burn them using one of your candles, and as you do so imagine the world thawing and the last of winter’s cold disappearing. Focus on the warmth the candle gives, and remember the feeling of the summer sun on your face.

 

4. Bake a Spicy Loaf Cake

Warms foods are associated with Imbolc, as is dairy because of the birthing of cattle. This spicy cake is one of my favourite Imbolc recipes. Not only is it a festive, yummy treat, it’s also big enough to  to share with your friends and family. The original recipe is from Soraya’s book The Kitchen Witch (which I highly recommend), but I’ve added my own touches to it. If you’re a baking queen then you can add some of your own, too! Also, if you don’t have a loaf tin then any large cake tin will do. The cake will just be a different shape, is all.

loaf cake recipe

 

5. Set Out Goals for the Year

As Imbolc occurs at the start of the Gregorian year, it is a great time to clarify what you want to achieve over the coming months. Write a list of your hopes and plans for the year, and speak each one out loud to give it feeling.

Another way of doing this is with ribbons. Find some long lengths in bold colours. Colours associated with Imbolc are yellow, brown, red, white, pink, and green, so you might want to use some of those. Choose a tree or bush in your garden, or if you don’t have a garden then a large potted plant is also suitable, and tie each ribbon around a branch whilst thinking of something you wish to achieve this year. Be realistic, and don’t wish for anything which will hurt someone else. Focus on yourself, and the positive changes you can make to your own life. Not only will the colours of the ribbons brighten up the grey of winter, they will also remind you of your goals. Leave them in their place, and whenever you reach a goal then untie the corresponding ribbon and thank it.

However you choose to celebrate, I wish you a warm, productive, and creative Imbolc! Embrace the light, and take time to notice the earth stirring. Also, any reason to bake a cake is a good one, right?

 

Fairy Tales in Chicago: Blogger Meet Up and Colleen Moore’s Castle

A vast, bustling metropolis like Chicago does not seem a likely place to find fairy tales. But there is magic everywhere, if you take the time to look for it. During this trip, it came in the form of a Christmas market and a visit to the Museum of Science & Industry.

The Christmas market was German-style, meaning there was lots of cute wooden toys and lebkuchen (nom!) One wooden hut even had signs made from gingerbread, and inside there was a carousel-shaped display of it. Very Hansel and Gretal! There were also glass Christmas tree ornaments inspired by fairy tales, such as Cinderella’s slipper and Little Red Riding Hood. I had the pleasure of attending this market with Kristin, who runs the blog Tales of Faerie. Her posts are so insightful, and have inspired me a great deal. When I knew I was going to Chicago, we arranged a meet up. We went out for tea and explored the market, and it was lovely to chat in person instead of via email for a change! You can read Kristin’s post about our little outing as well.

Chicago Christmas market

 

On the last day of my trip, I went to the Museum of Science & Industry with friends. Again, a science museum doesn’t sound like a very fairy tale place, but it was here that I found Colleen Moore’s castle. Colleen Moore was an American actress, most famous for her parts in silent films during the 1920s. Aside from acting, Moore had a passion for dolls houses. The castle was made by her father in 1928, and decorated with help from one of Moore’s set designers as well as a host of artists, authors, jewellers, taxidermists, and Hollywood’s most skilled crafters. Moore continued adding artefacts to it until her death in 1988.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

What I found most captivating about Moore’s castle is that everything inside it is real. The miniature bearskin rug is made from real animal fur, and the bear’s teeth are actually from a mouse. The books in the library are tiny novels, written by famous authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck. The world’s smallest copy of the Bible is in there, too. The toiletry set features a tiny razor which actually cuts, and the hairbrush has bristles made from strands of fox hair. The princess’s bedroom furniture is adorned with real gold and diamonds, the murals and pictures on the wall were painted by artists and designers (including a portrait of Mickey and Mini Mouse from Walt Disney Studios), the tapestries were hand-sewn by a master needle-worker, and the castle has electricity and running water.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Left: Kitchen. Top right is the grand hall, and bottom is the bathroom.

 

The castle is not short of fairy tale references, either. There are two bedrooms, one for a prince and one for a princess. The princess’s bed linen is adorned with patterns of cobwebs, which is a nice nod to ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ In the entrance courtyard stands a silver coach and horses, all ready to take Cinderella to the ball. Beside it is a weeping tree, reminiscent of ‘Ashputtel’ and ‘The Juniper Tree.’ There are no banisters on the staircase in the Grand Hall, because faeries can fly so they don’t need to hold on. In the kitchen, a mural of a witch decorates the wall behind the pots and pans. On the right-hand wall is another mural of the Three Little Pigs.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle
Top: The entrance courtyard with Cinderella’s coach and the weeping tree. Bottom left is the prince’s bedroom, and bottom right is the princess’s.

The fairy castle arrived at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry in 1949. It receives an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, and is worth around $7 million. This video shared on the museum’s website shows the castle undergoing some conservation work:

As well as a valuable exhibit and exquisite dolls house, Colleen Moore’s fairy castle is a living manifestation of her dream. She worked hard to create it exactly how she imagined it. Moore and the hundreds of people who contributed to her project are proof that you’re never too old for fairy tales, and if you’re going to follow your passion then you might as well pull out all the stops. Thanks to them, the fairy castle is now alive for everyone to enjoy – children, daydreamers, historians, artists, and fairy tale fans alike.

Chicago Colleen Moore's fairy castle

 

 

Goodnight, Goodbye: Why I’m Travelling Thousands of Miles for a Band

A couple of months ago, I phoned my mum to tell her I’m going away just before for Christmas. The first thing she asked was “where are you going?” When I replied with “Chicago,” she knew. There could only be one reason for me to go to Chicago in December. She started listing reasons why this is a bad idea, and I could see her points. Yes, it’s very irresponsible and spontaneous. Yes, I might be ill from the exertion of such a big trip, and yes I hate flying. No, I don’t have a lot of money. I know it’s already snowing in Chicago right now, so there is a chance our flight home may be delayed. Sorry, but I’ll have to see grandma and my niece and nephew for new year instead of Christmas.

But despite her reservations, mum gave me her blessing. Because she knows what this trip means to me.

ff329a12d9b4e048309850d61cb77efc
 

When I was 15, I discovered a band called Kill Hannah. One of my friends sent me Crazy Angel, and I hated it. But I was feeling adventurous with music at the time, so I looked them up on YouTube and found Lips Like Morphine. I liked that one, and burned it to a CD to play in mum’s car. She liked it, too.

‘All the nights when I was scared, and when it got too weird, it was the songs that saved me’

A few weeks later, I found Scream. I don’t know what it is about this song, but I became obsessed with it. I played it in the car as well. Mum and I turned it up loud and sang. I knew that I had to listen to this band more, and so I bought my first Kill Hannah CD: Until There’s Nothing Left of Us. I imported the American version, because the UK one did not include Scream. That album went in a car as well, on repeat for weeks. I scrawled its lyrics over all my journals.

Some of my journals from the past few years. There’s some Kill Hannah in every one.

 

At 16, my life changed in several ways. By the end of the year, I felt like I had been hollowed out and didn’t know what to fill myself back up with. During this year, Kill Hannah released their third studio album, Wake Up the Sleepers. This joined all their other music to become my soundtrack. Kill Hannah were there when I left high school, they kept me feeling cheerful through a summer spent working nights in a gift shop, and they were there when fate stepped in and did the last thing I expected by taking one of my friends away. She was one of the strongest, brightest people I have ever known, and the thought that I would lose her had never once crossed my mind until it happened. That night, I cried through my shift as I served customers then went home and buried myself under my duvet with my iPod.

I started sixth form the day after her funeral as a sad, anxious mess. Kill Hannah were there then, too. Keeping me awake at 7am when I got the bus each morning. Keeping me sane through the times when I just couldn’t stop crying, when I couldn’t sleep, and when I pulled all-nighters to finish essays. Wake Up the Sleepers went in the car, too. On shopping trips, when I missed the bus and needed a lift, on spontaneous drives along the coast road.

‘Let’s slow dance to our own heartbeats’

Kill Hannah: 2010 tour poster

 

In 2010, I went to my first Kill Hannah show. When I saw them announce a UK tour, I had to go. My older brother made this possible by offering to drive me and a friend to Birmingham and back. From my hometown, it’s a 6 hour round trip. I will never stop being grateful to my brother for volunteering for that journey! We plied him with food and petrol money and off we went.

We queued outside the venue for two hours. Despite being May, it was freezing. We had no coats, because we are hardcore gig-goers. 

df4a6640a52d9949dc76514999de4749
Lead singer, Mat Devine, wore feathers on his head, and Doc Martens. And he held a panda, because why not.

They played Scream. I screamed. Then a crowd surfer went past and kicked me in the head. It was awesome. They also played a cover of Just Like Heaven by The Cure, a song I didn’t know at the time but I will never forget the atmosphere when that acoustic guitar music began.

I bought American Jet Set from the merchandise stall. It went in the car on the way home. We didn’t get back until 3am.

‘And I’m not running anymore, I’ll stand and face it all, I’ll fight for every breath until there’s nothing left of us’

After Birmingham, I joined Kill Hannah’s street team, the Kill Hannah Kollective. I logged on to their website, and instantly received messages from other members. These messages quickly grew into friendships. For the first time in my life, I was part of something. I was astonished how so many people from all over the world had come together just because of a band, and how much love and support we were able to give each other. Apart from a group to promote Kill Hannah, we are a support network, a little corner of the internet where no-one is ever alone. The KHK never give up on anything, ever. When things got tough, I repeated that to myself. Although small, the KHK are an army. I received a KHK wristband in the post as a gift from one of the Generals (yes, we had military rankings! I was the Lt. Colonel for UK East) in 2011 and never took it off. I’m still wearing it now.

This video for the song Home was made by a KHK member, and it says so much more about the strength of the KHK than I ever could. Also, the last clip? That’s me!

I also started reading the lead singer, Mat Devine’s, blog, the Raccoon Society. Not all the posts are live anymore, but it was a community where you could write in and chat to other people and Mat would answer questions and give advice. I loved his style of writing, and how he was able to help so many people. It inspired me to start blogging, in the hope that maybe I could someday do the same. Recently, Mat published a book called Weird War One: The Antiheroes Guide to Surviving Everyday Life which has the best of the Raccoon Society in it. If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, sort you out, and make you smile, then go ahead and read it. You’re not the only lonely heart out there.

I bought For Never and Ever, their first studio album, from eBay. It went in the car. On Christmas day in 2010, mum and I played New Heart for Christmas. By now I knew about New Heart, the Christmas gig Kill Hannah do every year at the Metro in Chicago. I was desperate to go, but when you’re 17, have little money, no confidence, and have never travelled alone before, just going to the next town is a big enough deal never mind a whole other continent. But I consoled myself with the thought that one day I would be able to make it. I put it on my bucket list.

New Heart 9 at Chicago Metro, 2012

‘It looked like the perfect day, in photos we were smiling’

In 2012, I returned to Birmingham to attend another Kill Hannah show (this time driven by my parents, who then drove straight to London afterwards and booked into a travel lodge so I could go to the show in Islington the following night. More eternal gratitude!) This time, I got to meet my online friends and together we paraded through the streets with a banner. I remember how we each held the edge as we walked, so the design could be seen by all. We wanted everyone to know who Kill Hannah were, and what we stood for. I held my head up and smiled at onlookers, fearless, unbreakable.

419828_10150686298898703_8192513702_9322270_1342742085_n
Kill Hannah, the KHK, a toga banner, and a lot of Skittles. Birmingham 2012.

Before the show, I got to attend a meet and greet. Pretty much all I remember of this is giggling and my brain going ‘rhgfuigsj dh wdh dkjdhbkjsx’ because I was meeting this band, these people who had produced this music that had become such a huge part of my life. I remember giving Mat a paper raccoon, and lots of Skittles. Then we had group photos, before we were whisked away to queue for the show. We got spots at the barrier, and the sound of our combined voices singing Nerve Gas was enchanting.

I bought The Beauty in Sinking Ships and The Curse of Kill Hannah afterwards. They went in the car on our late night drive.

In Islington, I attended their sound check and felt all tingly when they played Hummingbirds the Size of Bullets. Such beautiful, allegorical lyrics. That concert was one of the best nights of my life. Mum got to go, too. And we managed to drag dad along, even though it really wasn’t his thing! We stood at the back and danced, before I reclaimed my spot at the barrier with the KHK.

IMG_0268
Sound check in Islington, London 2012

Later in 2012, I started university. On my last night in my hometown, I sat on the beach with my dog wearing my brand new purple Doc Martens. I took a photo, and captioned it with a Kill Hannah song.

Kill Hannah Last Night Here
Last Night Here

Kill Hannah were played when my new housemates and I made dinner. They went on my wall when my American friend sent me a signed poster from New Heart. When I moved house and was afraid to sleep in a strange, dark room, I put their songs on shuffle beside my new bed.

IMG_0402
‘Universe, wrap your arms around me. Make me strong, so I can take on anyone.’ Lyrics from Why I Have my Grandma’s Sad Eyes

‘Be my love, and race the dream together’

Also at university, I met someone. He had never heard of Kill Hannah, and as you can imagine I soon changed that. I lent him all my CDs, and he fell in love with their music at the same time as he fell in love with me.

When I saw the announcement for this year’s New Heart, I figured it was no big deal. It was just like any other year – again I didn’t have to means to go, but perhaps next year I could when I’d found a job and some stability. Then I saw it said ‘final show,’ and the last 7 years of my life crashed in on me. All those moments, memories, and lyrics. All that time daydreaming and thinking ‘one day.’ The thought that I wouldn’t ever be at New Heart made me feel ill. Even more, that my partner and I would never get to see them together, I’d never get to be with my American KHK friends, and that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

My partner took one look at me said ‘we’re booking a flight.’ And then we did. And this is one of the most insane things I have ever done. ‘You’re going all that way just to see a band?’ people keep asking. Yes, yes I am. But not just a band. I’m going because teenage Amelia needs to. The dream of attending New Heart kept her sane, and I can’t rip that away from her. I’m going for my partner, so he can see them and we can sing to Crazy Angel together. It’s one of my favourites now. Also, I get to visit a new place and talk to online friends in the flesh instead of through a screen for the first time. Two of the most important things to me are travelling and people to travel with. Because of Kill Hannah, I have both of those. This is about so much more than music.

 5bf19148174a475192d8f301c9f9aeec

 

I’m not going to get all dramatic and be like ‘this band saved my life.’ Maybe when I was a teenage emo kid I would have said that, but now I just want to say thank you. Kill Hannah gave me a purpose, an escape route when I had nothing. Without them, life would have been harder, and I would have missed out so many wonderful experiences.

‘Stick to the dream and don’t ever give in, even when you’ve got nothing to lose and no way to win’

Saying goodbye to Kill Hannah will be saying goodbye to a big part of my life. But I still have their music, and I am sure that no matter what I end up doing it will be a part of my future. Even after the band have gone, I can’t stop being KHK. We’ll fight for our dreams, until there’s nothing left of us.

Believer
 
(WUTS tour poster from Midlands Rocks, New Heart image from Alex Savage, Kill Hannah image from Metro Lyrics)

Halloween: Frights, Lights, and Ancient Rites by Kimberley Ford

Today, Halloween is seen as a time to munch on candy corn and scare the neighbours with the freakiest trick you can find. A time when pumpkins with terrifying faces lurk on porches, and spider webs, black cats and witches are everywhere you look. But why is it that Halloween is associated with being scary? And why do we carve pumpkins?

Scary Spirits: A Short History of Halloween

Halloween has its origins as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead known as Samhain. It is a time when the veil between the living and the dead is believed to be thinnest. This festival is still celebrated by Pagans today, although many also celebrate it as marking the end of summer and the beginning of the new Celtic year which starts on the first of November. It is believed that, on Samhain, those who have died during the year will be able to walk as ghosts amongst the living before their souls pass through to the underworld. Death is respected by Pagans as a natural and necessary part of life rather than something to be feared, so the spirits of recently departed loved ones are welcomed and honoured. Those born during the past year are also welcomed into the community.

In the time of the Celts, Samhain was celebrated with a feast of harvest fruits and vegetables which the spirits of recently deceased relatives were often invited to attend – as well as the sacrificing of animals in aid of helping the spirits on their journey. It was also a time when the presence of these spirits was believed to help priests make predictions about what would happen in the future. During the celebration, people would wear costumes made of animal skins and attempt to divine each other’s fortunes, whilst bonfires were built to scare away unwanted spirits that could also get through the veil. After the festival, homes would be lit with flames from these bonfires for protection and to keep warm. The idea of scaring the unwanted spirits away still lingers today in the way we dress up and place candles inside of pumpkins.

Halloween pumpkin jack o' lanterns
Pumpkin Jack o’ Lanterns by Chris Goldberg. Creative Commons – CC BY-NC 2.0.

Jack of the Lantern: How Pumpkins Became Jack o’ Lanterns

Pumpkins are now so synonymous with Halloween that you can’t get away from them come October, but pumpkins weren’t always used at Halloween. When a mass immigration of Irish people to America occurred in the 1800’s, they brought with them the tradition of carving turnips and other vegetables, such as beets, and placing an ember inside them to ward away malicious spirits. But, upon their arrival in America, they discovered that pumpkins, which they had never seen before, were much bigger and easier to carve. And so, the jack o’lantern as we know it now was born. 

Halloween carved pumpkins
An assortment of carved pumpkins by John Phelan. Creative commons – CC BY-SA 3.0.

The name Jack o’ Lanternactually comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack (or ‘Jack of the Lantern’) who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. But, living up to his name, Jack refused to pay for his drink and convinced the Devil to transform into a coin he could use to purchase their drinks. But, once the Devil had become a coin, Jack decided to keep it and put it in his pocket, along with a silver cross which prevented the Devil from regaining his previous form. Eventually, Jack did free the Devil, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year or claim his soul if he died. 

However, the following year, Jack tricked the Devil again by sending him up a tree to pick some fruit. Once the Devil was up the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark so the Devil couldn’t come down unless he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. Jack died soon after, but God would not allow such a bad fellow into heaven and the Devil, despite still being angry, would not let Jack into hell either as he’d promised not to claim Jack’s soul. So, Jack was sent out into the night to roam the earth with only a burning coal from the flames of Hell inside a carved-out turnip to show him the way. And he’s been roaming ever since.

neep lantern
Turnip lantern. Image taken by Amelia Starling.

People from Ireland and Scotland then began to replicate Jack’s turnip lantern, giving them spooky faces and placing them by doors and windows to ward off the spirits of the dead – as well as Stingy Jack himself. The tradition still continues today, and is my favourite part of Halloween. For anyone interested in the most epic of all pumpkin displays look up the Griffith House in Kenova, West Virginia. Featuring rows of thousands of grinning pumpkins, their glow covers pretty much the whole house, even from the highest roof!

_______________________________________________________________________________

Kimberley Ford is a Creative Writing graduate and book blogger. She writes YA, and is currently working on her first novel. You can follow her on Twitter @kimwritesthings.


Scary Folklore: Motivating Children’s Behaviour by Kristin

When we read fairy tales and legends we tend to think of them as archaic beliefs that our modern, intellectual society has left far behind. Yet even in this scientific and technological age, there are supernatural characters that are still presented to children as real. Especially at this time of year, I’m fascinated by this holiday season in which we celebrate fear.

Certain folkloric characters are still used to scare children into good behavior. In a conversation a while back, I was surprised to hear one friend say that his mom used to threaten himself and his brother with the Boogeyman if they didn’t behave. I didn’t think that people my age would have been raised to fear him — to be honest I only have vague notions of who he is (and those perceptions mainly came from the Veggie Tales song “God is Bigger than the Boogeyman” and the Oogey-Boogey Man from “Nightmare Before Christmas.”) But the Boogeyman or related monsters are pretty universal – just check out this list of Boogeyman variants and beliefs around the world! Whether children have trouble with eating their food, not staying out after dark, or sucking their thumbs, most cultures have a grotesque monster who might kidnap them and often will try to cook and eat them.

Alongside these male monster figures, we are familiar with related the female version, witches who might lure children in and even try to eat them as well. Another friend, who grew up in Poland, said that as a child she was regularly threatened with Baba Yaga! Though not so well known in America in general, Baba Yaga is definitely well known in fairy tale circles. The witch was a common figure in folk tales in Russia and countries like Poland as well.  Agnieszka recalls, I was definitely threatened about Baba Yaga coming to get me if I misbehaved, that she would take me back to her house on a chicken foot. I definitely believed it and it scared the heebie-jeebies out of me so I behaved! “

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa
Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Image in the public domain – source

I don’t know how I feel about the idea of parents scaring their children with monsters and villains if they don’t behave. Not only does it sound a little cruel to give them such terrifying lies, but it seems like parents are avoiding the blame for disciplining their children themselves.

And yet, we do see the opposite happening with supernatural characters who get the credit for rewarding good behaviors — most notably Santa Claus (although I recently overheard one mother say, “No way am I going to let Santa get the credit for all my hard work!”). I imagine it would be a little frustrating for parents not to receive thank yous from their children for all the time spend shopping and wrapping and often sacrificing to make Christmas morning wonderful for their kids…

Krampus
A Christmas card from the early 1900s. The text says ‘Greetings from the Krampus!’ In German folklore, Krampus is a horned figure who punishes naughty children at Christmas. Image in the public domain – source

Although not quite as popular, one more character I think most people grew up believing in (at least in America) is theTooth Fairy. And although getting money in place of a tooth would seem like a win-win for children (I used to get quarters, but the Tooth Fairy, from what I hear, has gone up in her giving to keep up with inflation, my students get a dollar for each tooth…) there are some children who are legitimately afraid to imagine some woman entering their room while asleep and taking something that used to be a part of their bodies. It is kind of gross to imagine the Tooth Fairy’s large stash of teeth somewhere and what purpose she has for collecting them all…

I heard one cute story involving the Tooth Fairy. A student of my mom’s didn’t want the Tooth Fairy to come and take his tooth, so he set up his Lego men around the tooth to guard it. When he woke up in the morning, the tooth was still gone, and his Lego men were tied up-with floss 🙂

While that has humor for the adults hearing it, I imagine it might have been somewhat terrifying for that little boy. I admire his creativity in thinking of a way to keep his tooth safe, and yet I would think he felt somewhat helpless when seeing his best efforts thwarted. The fact that the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus only come at night, when we’re asleep, not only gives adults ammunition for getting their kids to actually go to bed on exciting nights, but also is a reminder that we humans, even the strongest and bravest of us, are pretty helpless and weak for that third of our lives when we sleep.

Polly Becker Tooth Fairy
The tooth fairy visits children as they sleep. Whilst her intent is benign, the idea of a supernatural being visiting whilst asleep is naturally scary for some children. Image by Polly Becker.

But really, especially with Halloween approaching, those of us of all ages tend to find enjoyment in trying to scare ourselves and others. Although it may seem like a strange tradition, when people decorate their lawns with skeletons and other scenes that are violent and morbid, each time we watch horror movies, go to haunted houses, or participate in Halloween activities and emerge victorious, we are symbolically conquering our fears. Scary movies are like a personal challenge-will this movie terrify me or will I defeat it? Maybe creatures like the Tooth Fairy, even the Boogeyman and Baba Yaga, provide children with the important rite of passage of realizing they don’t believe/aren’t afraid any more. I didn’t get the sense that my friends who spoke of being threatened as children were upset with their parents or traumatized — it was seen as more of a cultural myth than their parents being cruel.

Did your parents threaten you with a dangerous character when you misbehaved? What lengths did they go to to convince you that those creatures were real? And is it all right for parents to frighten their children unnecessarily?

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Kristin is a Chicago-based blogger who writes about fairy tales on Tales of Faerie.

 

Harvest Time: Folk Horror & Our Fear of the Countryside by Bethany Scott

Something odd happened to Britain in the 1970’s.

The hippie movement was turning sour. Scientists furthered new environmental research and people began looking inward to their country surroundings. Urban sprawls butted against farmland, creating unsettling, unfamiliar spaces, and there was a surge of interest in dark folklore of the British Isles. The mantras of peace and love were abandoned. Innocence fled the fields.

The peak of the folk horror movement in the 70’s left a taste in British mouths that we have never been able to get rid of, most vividly in fiction.

The Wicker Man
Still from The Wicker Man (1973). Image from Cryptic Rock.

The notion of a terror from within toppled the reign of the ghoulish Hammer horrors and set the stage for films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw. No one was scared by Gothic castles adorned with clanking chains any more: the real horror was to be found right outside your front door in the piercing sunshine of the summer solstice.

The most effective folk horror fiction puts nameless fears into words. It reminds us of our fear that, for all our quantifiable facts and study, there will forever be a shapeless realm like a veil between ours and whatever dead place lies on the other side. M. R. James was an early example of folk horror’s timeless appeal, penning several contributions to the genre in the early 20th century. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary usually featured an unnamed narrator sat by a cosy fire in some Oxford clubhouse, relating a woeful tale of horror to rapt companions. James was fully aware of the power of bringing the supernatural into familiar surroundings.

In James’s View from a Hill, a scholarly archaeologist is called to the country to examine artefacts and finds a ghostly abbey, ruined during the Reformation, visible only through binoculars.

O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad
Still from O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1968). Image from Moonbase Central.

The dark forces still dormant in the fields around the abbey nearly kill him. In O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, an affable gentleman named Parkin retires to the seaside for a restful break. On a walk, he finds an ancient bone whistle in a graveyard and, pleasantly unaware of the consequences, blows a note. It heralds the arrival of a featureless spectre that haunts him just beyond his scope of vision. The story was adapted for television in 1968, and traumatised the British public with a dream sequence involving Parkin pursued by the spectre along an endless stretch of bleak Norfolk coast.

Folk horror even pervaded public service announcements which highlighted to children the danger of seemingly everyday situations. These broadcasts have become notorious, and many adults have been unable to shake their memories. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was one such film created to prevent accidental drowning, and featured a Grim Reaper-style hooded figure lurking nearby as children swam or attempted to retrieve a ball from a flooded quarry. Needless to say these broadcasts were very effective.

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water
Still from The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973). Image from Noise to Signal.

The popularity of folk horror continues, with books such as Simon Maginn’s Sheep shining a light on the innate fears unique to British culture to this day. We are an island nation, naturally distrustful of strangers and blanketed by a beautiful yet perilous and often lonely countryside with a pagan past that has left little by which it can be understood. Our increasingly technological lifestyle means the forces of nature, seen and unseen, are more removed from our everyday lives than ever, and that leaves us wondering – were our solstice celebrations really as innocent as we once claimed?

____________________________________________________________________________

Bethany Scott is an author living in Scotland with her military husband and three civilian cats. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyrscott and visit her blog.
 

Travel: Dragon Hunting in Norfolk

In the East of England, there is a Medieval city composed of cobbled streets, secret gardens, and flint churches. Its castle stands on a hill, one of the only ones in the region, for we are deep in big-sky country. If you go left, you will find yourself in Chapelfield, a gleaming, glass shopping centre where all the classiest brands can be bought. If you go right, you will find Tombland, where the aforementioned cobbles are the most ankle-grinding, and the antique shops and cafes stand in the shadow of the cathedral.
 
Welcome to Norwich. A fine city. Old and new, side by side.
 
This summer, Norwich was invaded by dragons. 204 of them, to be precise. 84 large dragon sculptures were painted by professional artists and placed around the city. Trail maps were provided, and thousands of people came to do some hunting. As well as these, 120 smaller dragons were decorated by local schools and displayed in shop windows, around the city’s library, and in Chapelfield. Officially called ‘GoGoDragons!‘, this event was organised by the charity Break. In October, the 84 large dragons were sold at auction to raise money. The statues were on display from June until August 2015, and free to look at with optional donation points. Based on the amount of fun we had dragon hunting, the insane number of people who descended upon the little, middle-of-nowhere city, and the sheer beauty of the dragons themselves, I am sure that Break must have been received a substantial amount.
What I loved most about dragon hunting was the simplicity of it. Go to the library, grab a map, and you’re off! One dragon in particular had a folkloric connection to Norfolk. Meet Luda, who was stationed in Norwich’s Millennium Library.

 

Luda painted by Kieron Williamson. Image my own.

Luda is painted on either side with images of the Norfolk Broads, including the iconic ruin of St. Benet’s Abbey.

Luda painted by Kieron Williamson. Image my own.

Around 30 minutes outside Norwich, there is a village called Ludham. This is by the Norfolk Broads, where in the past winters were harsh and lonely and superstition ran thick. It is from these old days that the legend of the Ludham Dragon appeared. Kieron Williamson, who painted Luda, was inspired by this legend. Not only is his artwork beautiful, it is also a physical representation of a local story.

A strange, monstrous lizard, covered in scales, with huge wings, was seen in the village of Ludham. It only came out after sunset, so the villagers began to stay inside at night out of fear. The lizard formed a burrow, where it chose to live. Every morning, the villagers blocked up the entrance with rocks. But it was all in vain, for come evening, the lizard tore them away and was free. To the villagers’ horror, one afternoon, the lizard emerged whilst it was still daylight. They watched it move away from the burrow, and then someone dropped a single heavy boulder over the burrow’s mouth. Upon its return, the lizard could not re-enter its home. It screeched and roared in anger, until it finally gave up. The lizard took off, over the fields, to St. Benet’s abbey. Then it passed through the crumbling archway, and dug itself down into the vaults beneath the ruin. And it has not been seen since…

St. Benet' s Abbey
The ruins of St. Benet’s abbey, beneath which the dragon could still be living. Image by Ian Russell, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0. Source

Over the course of the summer, my family, friends, and I, managed to locate all 84 dragons. We spent 4 days trailing around the city, and walked so much that we had to spend another 4 days letting our poor legs recover! After a while, it wasn’t just about finding dragons. It was about discovering our city, and helping others. We found places we had never heard of before. We got lost in a place less than half an hour away from our own hometown, and it was fabulous. There were groups of all ages — children, families, teenagers, elderly people — all together for one purpose. We gave and received directions by talking to them, instead of using Google Maps. We used pens and paper to track our progress. We stopped to read sign posts, and bought refreshments at independent cafes instead of chains.

So, if you take nothing else out of this post (apart from OOOOH PRETTY DRAGONS!), then let it be this: Get out there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being all ‘oh life is terrible these days because kids are all on their iPads and blah blah blah.’ Technology is useful, and whether we like it or not it’s ingrained into our daily lives now. But there is still joy to be found in doing things for yourself, and learning about the places you live in and visit first-hand.

Over those 4 days, I went on a camera rampage and took over 300 photos… oops. Here are some of my favourites. Commence dragon spam!

 

Raptorsfire painted by Jessica Copping. Image my own.

 

Dragons need clothes, too! Aurelia painted by Matt Reeve. Image my own.

 

Dragon or wall? Ascalon painted by Kate Munro. Image my own.

 

The Mother of Dragons painted by Paul Jackson. Image my own.

 

Daisy the Dragon painted by Bridget Parsons. Image my own.

 

Sunbeam painted by Raymond Noakes. Image my own.

 

Drewscilla Dragon painted by Julia Allum. Image my own.

 

Chalk dragons drawn on the streets. Image my own.

 

My favourite dragon of all – GoGoMosaic by Carolyn Ash. So sparkly!. Image my own.

Although they were only around for a short time, the dragons brought colour to Norwich — and also a little bit of magic! Who knows what sort of sculptures Break are planning to do in the years to come, but it seems that they have outdone themselves already. Whatever they choose, I’m sure it will be wonderful. But never quite as wonderful as the year of the dragon.

 

Storytelling: Mannington Hall August 2015

On the August 16th, I went to Mannington Hall in Norfolk for their fairy tales and fables day. As part of this event, I did some storytelling for families and also gave a talk about the history and context of fairy tales for adults. All in all, it was a wonderful day and I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to take part. Mannington is a beautiful, historic estate, with a little garden by a stream which was a perfect location to tell stories in the sun.

Mannington Hall, Norfolk
Mannington Hall. Image my own.

I told three of my favourite stories: Norwegian fairy tale ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ Giambattista Basile’s ‘Petrosinella,’ and a Baba Yaga story based on the one in Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. All three were very well-received; I don’t think many people had heard them before, which made me glad I chose them. My favourite moment was after telling ‘White Bear King Valemon,’ when one family went rushing out to the front of the house to look under the bridge for the troll-hag!

Amelia Starling storytelling
Storytelling in the garden. Image my own, taken by my friend.

Inside the hall, Lady Walpole and I put together a display of fairy tale books from both of our collections. They received a lot of attention, especially after I gave the talk. It was lovely to see people engaging with them and discovering new stories. One sweet woman also came up and told me that I had inspired her to tell more fairy tales to her grandchildren, and to be more creative with them. I smiled and thanked her, and inside I was melting with joy. Such a small thing, to tell a story. But such a big difference it can make to someone’s life. I made up my mind then and there to do more events like this.

Mannington Hall fairy tales
Display of fairy tales books from my own and Lady Walpole’s collection. Image my own.

In the room next to our display there was a fabulous children’s book stall run by Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, selling a selection of children’s and YA fantasy literature. Outside in the gardens, a hidden trail of adorable metal fairies made by the talented Baron Tremain at Wolterton Forge led visitors on a treasure hunt.

Mannington Hall fairy tales
Fairy trail. Image my own.

Local hospices came and set up stalls in the gardens, too. In total, over £300 was raised to support them. Fairy tales and helping charity – what a great combination! Thank you to Lord & Lady Walpole for organising and hosting this event, and to everyone who came and generously supported it.

 

Fairy Tales in Hanna

When I watched this film for the first time back in 2011, I didn’t really know what was going on and or think much of it. However, watching it again recently, I quite enjoyed it and picked up on a lot of fairy tale references.

I’m sure other people have blogged about this film and fairy tales before now, but whatever. I’m chucking my thoughts into the pot!

Hanna is an action film directed by Joe Wright. It’s about a teenage girl, named Hanna, who lives with her father, Erik, in the snowy wilderness of Finland. Erik has trained her to be an assassin, and explains that when she wishes to leave home, she must flip a switch. This switch will send a signal to someone called Marissa Wiegler, who Hanna has been told by Erik that she must kill. Well, of course she flips the switch. Cue lots of fight scenes, running, murder, and uh… repeat that cycle several times.

Here’s the trailer, to give you more of an idea:
From watching that, it’s clear there’s a fairy tale theme going on here.
 
Personally, I linked fairy tales to two aspects of the film: Family, and Hanna’s understanding of the world.
 
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
 
Firstly, family.
 
Hanna’s birth mother is dead. I don’t need to tell anyone familiar with fairy tales that dead mothers are a common thing, and as a result, so are passive fathers and evil stepmothers. Think ‘Cinderella,’ ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘Hansel and Gretal.’ Hanna lives with her father, and although he teaches her all the assassin skills she could ever need, he fails to prepare her for what the world is like and how to interact with other people. Then he sends her off, leaving her without guidance and subject to danger. In the film’s climax, he can’t even protect her from Marissa – Hanna has to face the final battle alone.
 
Marissa fits several fairy tale character archetypes. Sticking with the family theme, she can be seen as the evil stepmother. Especially since she killed Hanna’s mother because she wanted Hanna for herself — that’s going to extreme evil stepmother lengths! Marissa is possessive and determined. If she can’t have Hanna, then no-one else can. And Hanna makes it clear that she doesn’t want to be owned my Marissa (trying to kill her is a bit of a giveaway, who knew?) Marissa also fits the stepmother role because she had a hand in Hanna’s birth. Hanna was an experiment. Marissa’s company modified her DNA to make her stronger and more fearless — in other words, a perfect assassin. Which she is.

The other two characters which parallel Marissa are the wolf and the witch. In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is a hunter. He makes a game out of reaching grandma’s house, and enjoys the chase. Marissa is similar in that she enjoys tracking Hanna and her father, and picking off their accomplices. When she finally catches up with Hanna, their final showdown takes place in an abandoned fairy tale-esque theme park (which is a real place in Berlin called Spreepark. Urban exploring, anyone?!) Marissa walks out of the mouth of a wolf to meet Hanna, reinforcing her fierce personality.

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
I’m wondering why this wolf is even in a children’s theme park in the first place. It’s terrifying! Image from The Movie Club.
As for the witch, after Hanna kills a body double of Marissa believing it to be her, she sends her father a postcard saying nothing but ‘the witch is dead.’ Joe Wright also said in an interview that he picked Marissa’s shoes for some scenes because they looked ‘witchy.’ Marissa is the antagonist of this film, as so many witches are in fairy tales. This is an easy link to make, and especially for Hanna who grew up in isolation with only an encyclopaedia and a book of Grimm’s tales to tell her about the outside world.
 
Which brings me to Hanna’s understanding of the outside world.

Hanna has a book of Grimm’s fairy tales, which she is seen reading from as a child and also just before leaving Finland. Fairy tales have a reputation for teaching children morals, but Hanna has a distinct lack of these implying that fairy tales alone are not enough to educate a child. Having had no contact with the outside world until she goes on the run, despite her ruthless assassin persona she is very innocent. Everything is strange to her, and she is curious and wants things she does not understand such as friends, music, and electricity.
Hanna
Hanna befriends Sophie, an English teenager travelling with her family. They are very different, but manage to get along. Image from Wired.

In an interview, Joe Wright compared Hanna to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Little Mermaid:’

‘Well, The Little Mermaid is the story of Hanna. The idea that she grows up under the surface and imagines the world above as this beautiful, romantic place. And of course she gains legs and they are painful, and she discovers the world is quite cruel. Personally, growing up in this puppet theatre, this very romantic environment where everyone was painting and making puppets, then suddenly being told I had to go to school where kids bullied you and it was terrifying — in a way I identify both with The Little Mermaid and Hanna. The only thing I could accuse my parents of after years of therapy was that they led me to believe very sweetly that the world was going to be beautiful — and, often, it’s not.’

Full interview can be found here.

Fairy tales often have coming-of-age themes, where characters go out into the world alone to seek their destiny. Like the mermaid who is restless and wants to see what is above the water, Hanna also wants to see what is beyond the snow. But they both learn that it’s not what they expected. Hanna can handle the assassin-y stuff fine, but boiling a kettle or going on a date? Not so easy. Like in a fairy tale, she must overcome these challenges to get her happy ending.

The locations used also connote fairy tales. I’ve mentioned that Hanna and Erik live in isolation, well take a look at their cabin. If this doesn’t scream ‘fairy tale’ then I don’t know what does:

Hanna cabin the the snow
In the woods: Hanna and Erik’s cabin is straight out of a fairy tale picture book. Image from Pushing Pixels, which has some great information about the set design of Hanna.

It’s got everything – snow, quaint slanted roof, glowing windows, and is surrounded by a spooky forest.

Then of course there’s Spreepark, which has many fantasy and fairy tale elements:

Berlin Spreepark Hanna
House where Hanna goes to meet a friend of Erik’s – whose name, oddly enough, is Mr. Grimm. Image from Worstist.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Swan-shaped boats. Hanna and Marissa run across these. Image by Sebastian Niedlich on Flick River.
Berlin Spreepark Hanna
Abandoned pirate-style ship with a dragon’s head (and creepy swan in the background!) Image from Ceo World.

Visually, Spreepark makes the atmosphere of Hanna very surreal. As a symbol, for me it feels like Hanna wants to go back to when her life was simple, when she was reading fairy tales, instead of living them. But now everything is broken and it’s too late for her to return.

There’s a great article about the set design of Hanna here.

Speaking of symbols, the final point I want to make about Hanna is the deer. The opening scene of the film is Hanna hunting a reindeer, and then near the end she sees a young deer in Spreepark. Again, deers are common creatures in fairy tales. For example, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister‘ and Andrew Lang’s ‘The Enchanted Deer.’ They also feature heavily in Scottish and Irish folklore. Deers are symbols of peace and innocence, as well as wisdom, strength, and sensitivity.

Saoirse Ronan Hanna
In the snow, Hanna is the perfect hunter (also thought it would be nicer to have this picture than one of her with a dead deer…) Image from Plugged In.
Here’s my interpretation: Hanna killing the reindeer at the beginning shows she is strong in that environment. She can take down one of the most powerful creatures that lives there. However, the small deer later on is almost like it’s taunting her. By this point, Hanna is weak and tired of chasing Marissa. In a new environment, she’s not so sure of herself. I already said that Hanna lacks morals, and she’s not the only one — even the ‘normal’ people in this film kill mercilessly. Given its symbolic meaning, it’s almost like the deer is standing in judgement. All the characters are one-dimensional, again similar to fairy tales, and so the deer is a reminder that this world lacks feeling.
 
Overall, Hanna is undeniably a strange film. It grew on me second time around, and if you watch closely there’s a lot to read into (hence this blog post). Aesthetically, is’s very artsy and uses some interesting camera angles, so it’s good if you’re looking for something different regarding style. Also, Saoirse Ronan’s acting is flawless as ever.
 
Joe Wright said he wanted to make a film that was a kind of fantasy, but not CGI, Hollywood fantasy. A lot of fairy tale films claim to be ‘dark’ and look adult and cutting-edge, but somehow manage to be none of these things. Hanna is the real deal.
 
What did everyone else make of Hanna? Let me know in the comments!
 

 

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella: A Different Kind of Heroine

I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘Cinderella,’ but all the studying of fairy tales I’ve done for my dissertation has made me warm up to it a bit. I was willing to give it another chance, and so yesterday I went to see Disney’s new live-action version, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Not gonna lie, a big part of what drew me to it was the costumes. I’m a sucker for pretty dresses…

Actually, I’m going to discuss the dress first. In case you missed it, there’s been a massive controversy over the corset and how small Lily James’s waist appears. Just… really? It’s a freaking corset, the whole point of it is to exaggerate the shape of your body! Plus, look at the cut of that gown. When compared with a skirt that puffy, anyone’s waistline would look a bit lost. Both Branagh and James have also denied claims that her body was airbrushed. Whether that’s true or not who knows, but does it really matter? This is nothing to do with body image. Clearly people these days are just clueless about what a corset actually makes you look like.

A lot of people also seem to be criticising this film because Cinderella is too much is a passive heroine, especially when compared with Disney’s recent feisty females in films such as Brave and Frozen. I think this a very unfair and naive perspective to take, and one which misses the whole point of the film. Cinderella is not, and never has been, an active character. But that doesn’t mean she’s weak, either. Her story is about endurance, about remaining strong and hopeful through bad times. Branagh’s Cinderella certainly does that, and never once does she complain about her life. She just gets on with it in the best way that she can. Her lack of complaint isn’t a weakness — if anything, it just displays how solid her willpower is. A lot of people could do with taking a leaf out of her book. Too many of us like to moan about inconsequential things, when there is always someone who is worse off.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Lily James even makes collecting water look glamorous! Cinderella may not have the most amazing tasks to do, but she just gets on with them. That’s life. We can’t always do what we want. Image from Huffington Post.

Kristin over at Tales of Faerie wrote this fabulous post a few months ago exploring what is expected of Cinderella. She points out that realistically, if Cinderella had been defiant then she would probably have received a beating. Which, if you think about it, is true. ‘Cinderella’ is an old fairy tale. To put it into context, think of the thousands of servant girls throughout history who were just like her. They had no way out of their situations, no chance to be the active, feisty heroine. Sometimes real life just doesn’t work that way. In this respect, Cinderella’s perseverance is quite remarkable. Many would have despaired much sooner. As Kristin says, ‘her courage makes her a good role model.’ Just a different sort of role model. Those who criticise her for being passive are not paying attention to this. It’s all in the mantra repeated throughout the film: ‘Have courage, and be kind.’ It will pay off in the end.

Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
Cinderella and Prince Kit meet in the forest, where else? After all, this is a fairy tale! Image from Collider.

One thing I will say, though. Whilst I don’t believe she’s weak, Branagh’s Cinderella is sickeningly good. I know this is a stereotypical trait of fairy tale heroines, but he’s taken it to the extreme. Cinderella spends her days feeding and playing with animals. She reads to her father, and hums or sings all the time. Her hobbies include sewing and gardening. None of this is bad, but it just gives her character too much of a perfect image. It wouldn’t hurt to give her a few flaws, or a few grittier skills to make her more interesting.

Of course, her sickening-goodness means that when she meets the prince (who is called ‘Kit,’ and considering I’ve recently watched the asylum season of American Horror Story I’m sure those familiar with it can imagine what my mind conjured upon hearing that name!) she is suitably awkward. And so is he, for that matter. It works, because it fits their characters, although after awhile it feels a little too twee. However, I do like that they meet in the forest before the ball and spend a lot of time alone together on the night itself to get to know one another. This somewhat banishes the insta-love vibe of Disney’s original 1950’s film.

Story-wise, Branagh’s adaptation stays very true. Thankfully, the stepmother isn’t given too much backstory. Just enough to make her sufficiently malicious. Any more would have been straying into Maleficent territory, and the less said about that the better. The whole giving-villains-backstory-thing is getting a little wearing.

When the stepmother and stepsisters leave for the ball, Cinderella cries in the garden and calls to her mother. I thought this was a nice touch, as it harks back to the Grimm Brothers ‘Ashputtel.’ In this story, instead of a fairy godmother appearing the girl cries on her mother’s grave and leaves offerings, and is helped by her mother’s spirit in the form of a bird.
Cinderella Elenore Abbott
The spirit of Ashputtel’s mother helps her to go to the ball. Artwork by Elenore Abbott. Image from SurLaLune.

Speaking of the fairy godmother, she also narrates the story throughout the film. Personally, I thought this worked really well. It made it feel like a fairy tale; like it was being told instead of us just seeing it happen.

The final thing I have to say about this film is that the imagery is stunning. The sets and costumes are so realistic, it’s like watching a period drama. Compared to Maleficent, Disney’s other live-action offering so far, Cinderella is far superior in terms of visuals. Maleficent looked very CGI and fake, but there’s none of that here. The fairy godmother’s magic looks natural — not overdone, just pretty. I hope that their future live-action remakes follow suit.
Kenneth Branagh Cinderella
The ballroom scene looks very grand yet authentic. Image from Bails of Hemp.
Overall, I really enjoyed Cinderella. It’s a great feel-good film, and is very bold in that it offers a new kind of heroine. Okay, she’s not as interesting or outspoken as Merida, Rapunzel, or Elsa, but that doesn’t mean her story is any the less significant. See for yourself. As a previous Cinderella skeptic, I think I’ve been converted…

 

Blog Tour: Fairy Tale Hidden Treasures – The Valiant Blackbird

Fairy tale hidden treasures blog tour

There always seems to be a nucleus of well-known fairy tales, which many people don’t know there is a whole world beyond. The help rectify this, idea of this blog tour is to share some obscure fairy tales!

The tour so far:

Adam with ‘The White Cat’ at Fairy Tale Fandom
Kristin with ‘The True History of Little Golden Hood’ at Tales of Faerie
Zalka with ‘The Princess’ Curse’ at The Multicoloured Diary
Megan with a mysterious, untitled story at Life, the Universe and Everything
Gypsy with ‘The Heart’s Door’ at Once Upon a Blog

Whilst travelling a couple of years ago, I came across an antique bookshop. Of course I went inside, and it was there I found William Canton’s True Annals of Fairy-Land. I’d never heard of it before, and it wasn’t overly expensive so I bought it. I still don’t know that much about it – there’s an inscription on the inside cover stating it was awarded to a student at Hulme Grammar School in Manchester for ‘general form work’ in 1924, but the name is illegible and there is no date or place of publication. I’ve found out that William Canton was a British poet and journalist, who lived from 1825-1926.

I’ve chosen a tale from the True Annals of Fairy-Land for this post. It’s called ‘The Valiant Blackbird.’

William Canton The Valiant Blackbird

Mr. Blackbird is a very good singer and lives with his mate, Mrs. Blackbird. Upon hearing his song, the king wants to keep him in a cage so he can hear it all the time. However, the king’s servants catch Mrs. Blackbird by mistake. Determined to rescue her, Mr. Blackbird dons a helmet made from half a walnut shell and armour made from frog skin, and makes a sword from a thorn. With the other half of the walnut shell he makes a drum and, beating it, sets out for the king’s palace.

On the way there, he meets a cat and some ants who also have a score to settle with the king. They jump into Mr. Blackbird’s ear and travel with him. Further on, he meets a rope with a club and a river, who also jump into his ear and join the others on the journey to the palace.

When they arrive, the king’s porter laughs at Mr. Blackbird (who now refers to himself as ‘General Blackbird,’ in light of the eclectic army hidden inside his ears) but lets him in and takes him to the king regardless. General Blackbird demands his wife back, but the king refuses and locks him in the hen house for the night thinking they will kill him. But General Blackbird has other ideas. Once alone, he sings:

‘Come out, Pussy, from my ear,
There are fowls aplenty here;
Scratch them, make their feathers fly,
Wring their necks until they die.’  

The cat does exactly this, then returns to General Blackbird’s ear and they sleep. In the morning, the king sends his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. Instead, they find him singing surrounded by the dead hens. Outraged, the next night the king locks General Blackbird in the stable with wild horses. Yet again, he sings:

‘Come out, Rope, and come out Stick,
Tie the horses lest they kick;
Beat the horses on the head,
Beat them till they fall down dead.’

The rope and club comply, and the next morning the king again sends in his servants to retrieve General Blackbird’s body. But again, they find him singing and all the horses dead. On the third night, the king has him locked in with the elephants. This time, General Blackbird summons the ants:

‘Come from out my ear, you Ants,
Come and sting the Elephants;
Sting their trunk, and sting their head,
Sting them till they fall down dead.’
 
I’m sure you can guess what happens next! The ants sting. The servants arrive in the morning, and find the elephants dead and General Blackbird singing. On the final night, wanting to find out how General Blackbird has slain his animals, the king has him tied to his own bed and watches. He sings one last time:
 
‘Come out, River, from my ear,
Flow about the bedroom here;
Pour yourself upon the bed,
Drown the King till he is dead.’

The river flows, and as the king’s bed begins to float he cries out and tells General Blackbird to take Mrs. Blackbird and begone. Reunited, they live happily ever after.

I find it pretty amusing that a blackbird can take on a king and win. Definitely taught him a much-deserved lesson! The full version of the story as it appears in the book is available to read online here.