Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales Paperback – 23 Apr 2016
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"Langrish is a first-rate storyteller". - Amanda Craig, The Times
"Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is luminous and insightful, bringing a deep knowledge and an acute eye to all the wise old lore of folk and fairy tales, songs, poems, and stories of mystery and enchantment. This is a must read for anyone who has an abiding interest in the stories that have shaped our cultural imagination". - Kate Forsyth, author of Bitter Greens
"Katherine Langrish is a wonderful companion for an excursion into the otherworld of traditional tale. High readable, sharply perceptive about individual tales as well as engaging with wider motifs, this book (developed from a popular and long-running blog) is always down-to-earth, no matter how high flown the subject matter. We know we're in safe hands when we're invited to consider why folk-tale fools and saints can be rather frightening, or to take account of who is telling a story and why, to reflect on how some reports of ghostly happenings (as opposed to structured stories) are almost impossible to discount, and to recognise the role of princesses in fairy tales ('They tell us to be active, to use our wits, to be undaunted, to see what we want and to go for it.') The book is so generously furnished with apt quotations as to seem at times almost like an anthology, and it will appeal to absolutely everyone fascinated by the staying power of folk tales, fairy tales and ballads". - Kevin Crossley-Holland, Author of Norse Myths, winner of the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Fiction award for his children's books, President of the School Library Association.
"Langrish has been collecting fairytales for goodness knows how long, and her knowledge and frame of reference are phenomenal ... What she has done so brilliantly, either making general points or addressing specific stories or themes, is tell us stories about the stories: where they might have come from, what they might mean, or whether they are meant to mean anything." - Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
"The entire collection is readable, and its many subsections invite the reader to linger and reflect on each topic before diving into the next chapter ... her treatment of the texts and of complex issues such as the interplay between written and oral narratives is sophisticated. The book will be of particular interest to enthusiastic readers of fairy tales, and educators might consider assigning single essays to supplement other readings." - Sarah Cleto, Gramarye Winter 2016.
Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’ is a collection of essays on fairy tales and folklore, based on Katherine Langrish’s popular blog of the same name. The essays reflect upon subjects as diverse as fairy brides and Japanese fox-spirits, ghostly White Ladies, the role of fairy-tale heroines, and what happened to the Lost Kings of Fairyland. She examines a number of specific tales such as 'Briar Rose', 'Jorinda and Joringel', 'Bluebeard' and 'Mr Fox', and considers why and in what circumstances people have been prepared actually to believe in fairies.See all Product description
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"The title comes from a rather obscure book, West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances, collected and edited by William Larminie, and published in 1893. He translated the stories told to him in Gaelic in the Western Isles. In one of them, “The King Who Had Twelve Sons”, a young man who has married a princess finds a golden apple on the beach. In the next sentence it becomes a pearl of gold, and a druid tells him it belongs to the daughter of a king in the “Eastern world”. The young man’s pony then advises him of the journey he must undertake to find this other princess, one of whose obstacles is the seven miles of steel thistles.
It’s a confusing tale, with all the aleatory illogic of a dream, and as author Katherine Langrish takes us through it, she pauses to acknowledge our perplexity. At one point a hen-wife appears. A what? And where did it come from? “Oh well, I suppose every castle has one,” Langrish says. But the salient point about this baffling story is that it suddenly breaks off, and Larminie writes: “The narrator’s memory failed him at this point.” He remembered the last line, but not how the story got there.
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This is important because, as Langrish says, “Fairy tales on the printed page are finished, unchanging, canonical, anonymous. Fairy tales told aloud are fuzzy-edged, fluid, variable – and belong to the person who is telling them, for so long as they are upon his or her tongue.” Note the phrasing and tone of those last 11 words. Aren’t they themselves like something from a fairytale, their italics giving them a sound of command, like the geasa, or magical prohibitions, which get so many heroes and heroines into trouble? Cú Chulainn, we learn here, was placed under two: never to eat the flesh of a dog, and never to refuse a meal from a woman. So when a trio of witches offer him some roast dog, that’s him done for.
Langrish has been collecting fairytales for goodness knows how long, and her knowledge and frame of reference are phenomenal. Almost all those she cites here were new to me, however old they may be. One I did know was the story of Mr Fox, and as she went through its details they all came back to me: the command “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold”; the chopped-off hand with the ring on its finger falling into the hiding bride-to-be’s lap; even down to the number of pieces her rescuing brothers cut Mr Fox into (a thousand). I have no idea when I first heard this story; it has the quality of timelessness.
Langrish does not have theories. What she has done so brilliantly, either making general points or addressing specific stories or themes, is tell us stories about the stories: where they might have come from, what they might mean, or whether they are meant to mean anything. (Of faeryland, that “other place” which is neither the world, heaven, purgatory or hell, from where those we thought dead might, very rarely, be rescued, she says: “This is the fantasy of grief,” and I have never heard a better explanation.) It is all spun out so seemingly artlessly, or naturally, that you feel as if you are sitting cross-legged, gripped, like a child hearing one of these stories for the first time.
Yeats believed he had summoned the Queen of the Fairies; Langrish has her doubts about this. He reviewed Larminie’s collection, though, and of the stories in it he said: “They and their like are the only things really immortal, for they are told in some shape or other, by old men at the fire before Nebuchadnezzar ate grass, and they will linger in some odd cranny or crevice of the world when the pyramids have crumbled into sand.” This wonderful book is a map of those crannies and crevices."