I came home from work today to find a very exciting present waiting for me.
See how it says “artwork”? So excitement. So I opened it…
And this is what I saw. SQUEEEEE! I KNEW IT!!!
Then I turned it over.
Isn’t it completely glorious? I cannot wait to have this framed & up on my wall. (And I got bonus postcards! AND my pre-ordered copy of Vasilisa the Wise – which got launched last Thursday! – will be arriving just in time to make it onto my Christmas reading pile. What is Vasilisa the Wise? Oh my sweet. If you love fairy tales, Kate Forsyth’s enchanting storytelling, or the bewitching, other-worldly illustrations of the extraordinarily talented Lorena Carrington, head over to Vasilisa’s website and check her out.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately, starting with Sapsorrow’s Dress. As well as exploring some more of my own imaginative touchstones, I decided to ask a bunch of other writers about theirs. This week I’ve invited my good friend Robin Shortt, author of the soon-to-be-released YA novel Wellside, to share a key source of his storytelling inspiration. I gave him a bunch of questions, but I’m just going to throw them away at this point, because Robin’s story is fasincating…
(And because he’s too modest to boast, I’m going to say that you should watch out for Wellside, because it is A. May. Zing. I beta-read an early draft and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.)
Back in the mid-Eighties, what got me through a lot of boring days in sweltering classrooms was the knowledge that once they let me out I could go home, turn the fan on, turn the TV on and hear this:
In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order…but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven, the moisture of Earth, the powers of the sun and the moon all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation; and it became magically fertile. That first egg was named “Thought”. Tathāgata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said: “With our thoughts, we make the world.” Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!
Monkey was (deep breath) a BBC dub of a Japanese adaptation of the Ming Dynasty Chinese novel Journey to the West, which was in turn based on Song Dynasty legends surrounding Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Sanzang, or Tripitaka) and his pilgrimage to India.
In both the novel and the show, Tripitaka is only a supporting character. The protagonist is the stone monkey we just saw in the intro—Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, an even older figure in Chinese folklore, who becomes Tripitaka’s chief disciple. Together they journey from China to India so they can bring back original Buddhist scriptures. And, every episode, Monkey has to fend off assorted brigands, goblins and demons who try to waylay our heroes, in some kickass tokusatsu-style fight scenes.
It would almost be easier to talk about what isn’t a touchstone for me here. I like my heroes to question authority, and you won’t find a better anti-authoritarian fantasy than Monkey, who gatecrashes Heaven, mocks the Jade Emperor, steals the Peaches of Immortality from under his nose, and proceeds to beat up pretty much every major figure in Chinese mythology, with only the direct intervention of Buddha slowing him down. He’s a great character who still makes his presence felt in pop culture today, notably as the direct inspiration for Dragonball’s Goku. It was also my first exposure to East Asian martial arts and fight choreography, which I immediately fell in love with—I don’t think I’ve written a fight scene yet without some Monkey in its DNA.
Also—and this is what I want to talk about here—it was full of mythology and theology, starting with the dense Creation-story in the intro, that I knew literally nothing about. In Australian schools of the Eighties, when Religious Education consisted of a visit from a Protestant with an acoustic guitar and a felt board, Buddhism (let alone Taoism) was not exactly on the cultural radar. All this stuff was completely new to me, a vast and complex cosmology that was often only dropped as tantalizing hints, since the show always had to keep moving to the next scene of Monkey beating the shit out of a luckless demon with his magical staff. The culture, the society, even the landscape and architecture in the show, all of it was new.
This is probably a good time to mention the cultural appropriation angle. Monkey is an absolute minefield of appropriation issues—even before we get to the English dub, Japan’s borrowing of Chinese culture is an entire field of study in its own right. Then there’s China’s historical appropriation of Buddhism, which you can see in the syncretism of the novel’s vision of Heaven, where Buddha rubs shoulders with Laozi and the Jade Emperor.
There’s a lot in the dub that (rightly) wouldn’t fly these days—the Chinese-takeaway typeface of the title, the Asian accents put on by the mostly white cast. Back then, though, when Doctor Who was literally casting white dudes in yellowface as Asian characters, it didn’t stand out. Most importantly, their hearts were in the right place. While the dub, written by David Weir, could get silly (and the Japanese series was very silly at times), the underlying Buddhist and Taoist ideas were serious—Monkey itself is an extended Buddhist parable—and they were treated seriously. And while the show’s original Japanese audience would have been a lot more familiar with this world and its characters, the dub had to introduce them to kids for whom they were entirely new, without getting in the way of the story. They succeeded brilliantly.
(Digression: it helped that the source material, and the literary tradition it belonged to, was massively entertaining in its own right. Of Chinese literature’s Four Great Classical Novels, three of them (Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and The Water Margin) are pretty much straight-up adventure stories and compulsively readable. They even have cliffhangers:
The Jade Emperor accordingly told the demon-king Mahabali and a contingent of heavenly troops to hoist Monkey up and bring him to the executioner’s block, where he was to be cut into small pieces.
If you do not know what now became of this Monkey King, listen to what is told in the next chapter.
It’s the literary tradition that ended up giving us wuxia and Jin Yong, probably the best writer of adventure fiction in the history of the world, and who deserves a blog post or several in his own right. End digression.)
This trick—to introduce an unfamiliar world while also telling a readable story—is hard to pull off. We’ve all read stories that get bogged down in world-building, spending pages and pages on lovingly-detailed backstory while nothing at all happens; or stories that move along pleasantly enough but where the background is threadbare at best, or at worst just copy-pastes elves and dwarves from Tolkein at second- or third-hand.
All the fiction I’ve loved since I was a kid has managed this trick—H.P. Lovecraft, Tanith Lee, Michael Moorcock, Zack Parsons. Now, probably foolishly, I’m trying it myself. My upcoming novel Wellside is set in the Well, an endless pit lined with doors that each open onto a different world—a hub of realities, owing something to King’s Dark Tower and Blyton’s Faraway Tree. Various worlds have attempted to colonize the Well, sometimes cooperating with each other, sometimes butting heads.
The setting itself isn’t influenced by Chinese mythology (although watching the intro again after so many years, I can see the mountains of mud from which Monkey’s egg hatches in the skyline of Wellside’s Red Sand City) but it’s a complex background that I’ve tried to sketch out without bogging down the story. I hope I’ve at least partially succeeded.
Robin was born in Canberra and lives in Vancouver. His stories have previously appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild anthology Winds of Change. Wellside, his debut novel, out from Candlemark and Gleam in June 2017, is a tour de force of subgenre fusion that just cries out to become an immersive movie directed by someone with the visual flair of Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro.
I’ve been thinking a lot about story touchstones lately. Following on from my post on Sapsorrow’s Dress, here’s some thoughts on another one of my personal story touchstones…
Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood was the first ever chapter book my mother read to me. I remember her sitting down on my bed with this book with a completely intriguing cover, with twisty trees hiding fairy houses, hedgehogs scurrying around between spotty toadstools, and a hovering golden-haired, silver-winged pixie. I remember the anticipation I shared with the three Faraway Tree children as they leaned out their bedroom windows in their new house, and listened to the trees with the mysterious dark green leaves talking together (wisha-wisha) in the wood they so desperately wanted to explore.
I loved that book.
I’m not sure if The Enchanted Wood is what started my fascination with forests, but it certainly helped shape them in my imagination as places where adventure and magic happens.
Forests are, of course, generally held to be a symbol of the unknown. People entering forests in stories are almost always entering a period of uncertainty and danger. You just have to look at a bunch of fairy tale staples – Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Stepping between the trees is usually an act of desperation or coercion – or foolishness.
Vassilisa the Beautiful, Ivan Bilibin 1900
Snow White, John Hassall
Hansel and Gretel, Kay Nielsen 1925
And then there’s all the mythic stuff, such as Arthurian adventures like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the legendary Forest of Broceliande. The Forest is such a powerful storytelling symbol its use has carried right through from ancient times to the present day – take the great forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings, the Forest Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi or, of course, the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, just to name the three most iconic fictional worlds of modern times.
What I love about story forests is that often even the standard rules of danger and malevolence are suspended. They are genuinely ambivalent places. Forests are almost definitely full of hungry wolves and wicked witches and ogres who want to crack open your bones and suck out the marrow. But a forest could equally turn out to be a place of strange sanctuary, or hold an unexpected treasure in its green heart.
Obviously forests represent the wild and the untamed; they stand in stark contrast to other habitats like farms and cities, where the landscape has been subdued and converted to serve a specific (human) purpose. It’s not just the adventure and possibility of danger they represent, though, that makes my heart sing. It’s also the pervading sense of peace that you feel on entering a real-life forest. The different suite of sounds. The smells, the quality of the light, the sense of coming back to a simpler, more fundamental existence that entirely lacks the trappings of civilisation.
If my story brain’s touchstone is a European, fairy tale forest, Australian forests are an IRL touchstone just as potent. My mother took my sister and I on plenty of camping holidays out in the bush as a kid, and I have particularly fond memories of camps without parents in my teenage years, through school, Girl Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award. In fact, I think the first time I ever spent a night away from home in the absence of anyone more than a year older than me was on a Duke of Ed camping trip in the Namadgi National Park when I was about 16.
There is nothing quite so magical as waking up to the peace of the early morning Australian bush, when the air is still a bit misty and the sunshine is so new it’s more silver than gold. At this time of day the sun is just beginning to warm up the eucalyptus leaves on the trees and scattered on the ground, and the evaporating dew carries the sharp, clean scent into the air. This feeling, of what it is to be in a eucalypt forest, is the one of the things I tried to capture in my story Adventure Socks in CSFG’s anthology The Never Never Land. The main character is 91-year-old George, who is stuck in a dreary old-age nursing home. His only remaining pleasure is his memories of his wife, and the time they spent living in the Snowy Mountains. (Then George meets Maisie, a new resident who shakes things up a bit.)
He lay in his bed with his mind lost in memories. Hiking through lonely, lovely stands of ghost gums with Rose. Listening to the pure, chiming voices of bellbirds filling the air. Surprising a flock of brilliant rosellas from a tree; or getting a shock themselves when they discovered they were walking amidst a mob of kangaroos resting out the midday heat, stock-still in the shade. The roos had been indistinguishable from the weathered stumps of trees until he and Rose got too close and the nearest ones startled and bounded away.
– “Adventure Socks”, The Never Never Land
(If you’ve never been to the Snowy Mountains in Australia, you should go. It really is some of the loveliest country in the world.) I haven’t written many stories based in Australian forests, though. I’m very conscious that my experience of them (and most of the stories I’ve grown up with about the Australian bush) are predicated on the dispossession of Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people. For me, forests are ancient, primal places and the ancient stories of Australia’s forests are not mine to tell.
Just quickly scanning over my files of stories – published and unpublished – there are plenty that are set in or feature a forest. Forests play significant roles in two of my novel projects (so far), and plenty of my short stories. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, for example, in Strange Little Girls. It’s got a forest and, like all good story forests, this forest isn’t a nice place. It has a nasty secret. I’m trying not to give too much away here, but looking at the metaphorical meaning of the forest that I’ve outlined above, it’s interesting that in order for my protagonist (a 10 year old girl) to resolve the particularly horrifying problem I confront her with, I send her into this forest.
Malevolent secrets. Strange sanctuary. Treasure of a sort. Hmm.
So. That dress. *Sigh* Midnight blue and sparkling with stars like the night sky. Why did I flip out over a dress? Why that dress? Where did it come from?
I first encountered it in Sapsorrow; episode 7 of season one of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which starred the late, great John Hurt as the eponymous Storyteller. Sapsorrow is an adaptation of the story Catskin from the Brothers Grimm (which is part of a group of similar tales, such as Donkeyskin), in which the dress also makes an appearance. It’s a bit of a Cinderella tale, but so very much more tragic and disturbing.
Before I marry anyone I must have three dresses: one must be of gold, like the sun; another must be of shining silver, like the moon; and a third must be dazzling as the stars.
Catskin, from the Tales of the Brothers Grimm
(Based on translations from the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes)
That is Catskin speaking to her widowed father, the King, who has determined that he can only remarry if he finds a woman as beautiful as his dead queen. Sadly for Catskin, he determines she fits the bill. At first she tries to deter him with demands for those marvellous, impossible dresses. But when he produces them, against all her expectations, she flees, disguised in a strange and filthy robe of cat skins, from which she adopts her new name, and taking the dresses with her. Later she uses them to help her win the heart of a prince by appearing and disappearing, Cinderella style, at a grand ball.
Of the three dresses, it is the third one, “sparkling with stars” (Sapsorrow’s words), that captured my imagination. Why? Well, the simple answer is that I’ve always, always loved the night sky. That’s another thing that frequently stops my breath with its beauty.
I think it might be the perfect union of fantastical and scientific beauty. I could probably write a whole other blog post, or maybe even a thesis, on exactly why. But suffice to say, for me, it simultaneously embodies both the ultimate reaches of human scientific endeavour and the very essence of magic at work. And nothing fires my imagination like these two things.
Plus, night is beautiful, but it’s also dark and uncertain. It has depth and secrets. Things, both real and imagined, walk abroad in the dark that dare not show themselves in the day. Night is interesting.
Ok. That’s the stars. But why a dress?
Clothes are hugely significant in traditional tales. People use them to adopt new identities and transform themselves all the time. It’s all a bit Clark Kent really. Princes dress up as pig-herders, cats wear boots, servant girls force their mistresses to swap clothes with them, and the rags that a little old lady is wearing might just be disguising a fairy with awesome cosmic powers. The dress, however, connotes a very particular type of transformation. For a start, it’s specifically a female transformation. I’m very much open to being corrected on this, but, while I can think of a few traditional tales that involve men being dressed in women’s clothes, and a few where men are transformed by clothes, I can’t think of any that involve a ballgown. (Fairy tales generally conform to very conservative gender norms – which is an awful lot of fun to mess around with as a writer, but that’s a whole other story.) I have a pretty strong interest in fairy tales (and other traditional tales) as women’s stories, as well, so I find this very female symbol of transformation fascinating.
That ballgown or “Cinderella” moment, where the heroine is revealed in a spectacular ballgown and is suddenly seen in a new light, is incredibly potent. So much so it has been transplanted into a bunch of other stories. Just off the top of my head, Disney has re-used it in at least two other fairy tale adaptations: in Beauty and the Beast the famous dance scene represents the first time the two titular characters acknowledge their romantic feelings (and give the viewer hope the curse will be broken), and in Sleeping Beauty, the moment when Prince Phillip, and then his father, see Aurora in her gown (which the fairies have made for her for her birthday as a symbol of her attaining womanhood), is the moment they recognise her for the princess she is. You’ll note, too, that this ballgown moment is inextricably linked with romantic fulfillment as well. Which is an incredibly enticing and satisfying story hook (even while it carries a host of problems with it).
What do I mean by problems? Well, in many ways, the whole idea of a Cinderella moment is anti-feminist. These kinds of dresses invariably centre on unrealistic and unhealthy female body types (not to mention a very narrow definition of femininity). Lily James famously had to go on some god-awful liquid diet in order to be able to fit into the dress she is twirling around in above, and even without that particular modern twist, corsets and voluminous skirts are hardly hardly the stuff of female emancipation. But… (and I am not arguing that all those arguments are invalid), dresses of this nature are simultaneously a symbol of power and status. After all, Cinderella’s dress transforms her from a drudge into a worthy partner for a prince. (It does kinda stick in my craw that her transformation is contingent on the prince finding her an attractive prospect, but we’ll come to that.)
In a pre-industrial age, clothes were expensive. Spectacular clothes were serious investments. By way of example, there was a famous scandal in 1781 when Lady Worsley left her baronet husband and fled with her lover, Captain Charles Bisset, into the night. Amidst the ensuing social fracas, her husband steadfastly refused to turn over to her the contents of her wardrobe. In Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Lady in Red on this notorious episode, she describes Lady Worsley’s collection of some twenty-four gowns, including two court dresses, and all the various hats, gloves, ruffles, muffs, aprons and a hundred other accessories, as being valued in modern terms at over £15 million. With her glamorous wardrobe at her disposal, Lady Worsley would have been able to make her way in at least some society circles and cut quite a dash, even as an object of scandal. Without it, she was little better than a pauper. So her vengeful husband hung onto it.
Another historical figure with a documented history of legendary gowns is Queen Elizabeth I. Her wardrobe was an overt statement of the power and wealth she commanded. Today those gowns, documented in royal portraits and described in awed tones in diplomatic letters, have an almost mythic status, owing to the understanding that none of them had survived. Which meant when rumours surfaced a couple of years ago that a tiny little church in Hertfordshire possessed a Tudor altar cloth that might once have been part of one of those dresses, everyone got very excited.
Such sumptuous items as the incredible gowns worn by the Tudor nobility were never just thrown out when their original owner tired of them. They were commonly handed to valued servants or repurposed into other items. It’s now believed that the Queen gave the gown pictured in the “Rainbow Portrait” to the left to one of her ladies-in-waiting, Blanche Parry, who, in turn, gave it to her parish church, where it was recycled into an altar cloth.
What I find interesting about this story is how potent this dress is as a symbol of the Queen and her power. So much so that the local stories of the little church in Hertfordshire persisted, over centuries, in the claim that the altar cloth was connected to Queen Elizabeth, even though no historical documentation remains. (You can click on the portrait to go to the article published on the Smithsonian.com in January that explains why they’re pretty sure it actually was the Queen’s. The altar cloth is now being held at Hampton Court Palace, where it will go on display once restorations are done.)
So back to Sapsorrow/Catskin and her strange wardrobe. In this story, the dresses are much more than just a mechanism to engineer an advantageous marriage. They are, in fact, a symbol of Catskin’s power to make her own decisions and direct her life. In the first instance they give her the capacity to put off the disastrous marriage to her abusive father. It’s interesting to note that in the Catskin tale there’s no fairy godmother or ghostly angelic mother to assist the heroine by producing dresses magically, either. The dresses have come into existence by Catskin’s own contrivance, and if the details on how she carries them away with her are a little hazy (in a nutshell, so goes the tale), it is she that makes the decision to break them out and deploy them in the pursuit of her prince. This is a tale of a woman who chooses what she will wear and when she will wear it. She chooses the direction she wants her life to take and she takes active steps to achieve her goals.
So there you go. That’s why the idea of this dress has stuck with me for so long. It’s a thing of beauty, with links to all the magic and wonder and romanticism that come with the fairy tale transformation it symbolises. But it’s not just a pretty thing, and it’s not just about being pretty. The night sky dress of my imagination also speaks of tragedy and pain, and stories that are deeper and richer than the stereotype. It speaks of self-determination and a willingness to grapple with the terrors. It symbolises female ingenuity and the desire to look further and go beyond what’s known and comfortable to find something precious and worth the search.
I don’t think it’s any accident Alisa Perova called her creation the Night Goddess dress. It’s not just a dress for a princess.
Every now and then I see something so beautiful it almost makes my heart stop.
Here it is again, the Night Goddess dress, from Alice Corsets in the Ukraine.
Now, there are a million and a half beautiful dresses in the world. I’ve got a whole Pinterest board dedicated to them. But this dress, this dress, has haunted my imagination since I was a teenager. It’s like Alice Corsets plucked it directly from my starriest, most fairy taleish dreams. And it’s not just me. When Alisa Perova, of Alice Corsets, posted these photos of her most recent creation, she was flooded with inquiries from people who had fallen in love with it, wanting to purchase it. (She’s currently booked up for new orders until June 2017!)
I asked her why she made it and where she got her inspiration from. Alisa makes a lot of wedding gowns for brides wanting something non-traditional (as well as outfits for other spectacular occasions, such as the Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M’era Luna music festivals in Germany). The idea for this dress, she told me, came when she was watching the 1940s movie Ziegfeld Girl. Instinctively she knew stars were an ideal theme for an alternative wedding dress.
At that moment I understood I was going to position my dress as a wedding gown.
– Alisa Perova, Alice Corsets
Clearly she knows her stuff, because the pictures she’s posted have garnered thousands of likes on Instagram and been repinned on Pinterest over 30,000 times.
It got me thinking, though, why did I have such a strong reaction to this dress? Like I said, a dress that sparkles with all the stars of the night sky has occupied a special place in my imagination since I was about fifteen. So much so that I even made my own version of it for a costume party when I was about 20 (seen here modelled by my daughter). (Yep, I’ve still got it, 20 years later…)
I know exactly where I first encountered it (of course it was a fairy tale). But why has it remained such an iconic image for me, out of all the dresses I have encountered over years of copious fairy tale consumption? There are a bunch of universally recognised fairy tale icons: poison apples, glass slippers, roses and thorns, soaringly inaccessible castle towers to name but a few. But the night sky dress is my own particular fairy tale touchstone.
I’ll explore why in my next post. 😉
In the meantime, have some more luscious creations from Alice Corsets to pore over.