Fractured and Other Fairy Tales–Coming this January

In writing the fairy tales for this blog, I mostly thought to have fun with the stories. Truth be told, I never liked fractured fairy tales—not for the longest time. Fairy tales were special—perhaps even sacred, in a secular way. I didn’t start to read in a big way until after I lost my sight at the age of ten, but fairy tales had always haunted the edges of my imagination, even before that.
Having kids changed my attitude. I watched my children play-acting stories of various kinds, and I thought—maybe, just maybe—it was all right to mess with these old stories. The first fractured fairy tale I told was “Goldilocks and the Three Pigs”—to my kids, of course. Telling stories at bedtime with my kids had me making up and recombining stories in ways I hadn’t imagined before.
It wasn’t until I started this blog more than a year ago that I began taking fractured fairy tales more seriously. For years, I had registered the way fairy tales get filtered through popular culture. Bits of fairy tales get reused, sanitized, and sexualized for our everyday consumption. I of course had seen what Disney did with such stories in their efforts to adapt them for the screen—not to mention what they did to market those same films.
But there were a couple of things that helped focus my attention in a different way. My eldest daughter, always looking for something we could do as a family, got us watching the show Once Upon a Time. We all enjoyed it, but I sometimes had to bite my tongue to stop from being too critical.
The other was reading a series of young adult books by a friend of mine—The Perilous Realmseries by Thomas Wharton. If you enjoy novels that play with fairy tales, then you need to read Tom’s trilogy. The Shadow of Malabron is the first book, and it follows Will Lightfoot into the Perilous Realm, the land where all stories originate. One of Tom’s more intriguing characters from the series is Shade, the wolf from the story of Red Riding Hood. Will finds Shade in a library—Tom has a thing for libraries—and the two of them, along with a group of others, set out to help Will find his way home, and to discover Will’s story in the vast tapestry of Story that is under threat from the Night King. If you are looking for a series to get you through the Christmas holidays, then this one will do it.
Having read Tom’s series and watched Once Upon a Time with my kids, I suddenly wanted to try my hand at fractured fairy tales. You can read the result on this blog. I decided, this last fall, that maybe I should also collect them into a book. And I have. Fractured and Other Fairy Tales will appear in the next month. I’ve included some of the photos from my blog in the book as well. Not all of the photos are mine, but most are. You may wonder how a blind person takes photos, but it’s simpler than you think. Next time you are out and about, get out your phone—mine is an IPhone—close your eyes, and take a picture. Use your ears and your sense of what’s around you and see what you get. I take loads of pictures because many don’t turn out, but I’m always surprised by some of the results.
Fractured and Other Fairy Tales will be available through Amazon in the New Year, both in print and in Kindle. If you enjoyed the fairy tales on this blog, I’m hoping you will enjoy the book even more. At least if you order the hardcopy, you won’t need a Wi-Fi connection to enjoy it.

A Letter to C. S. Lewis

Dear Professor Lewis:
I’m writing this letter fifty-two years after your death, November 22, 1963. You won’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m writing anyway.
I was actually born three days before you died, in a small town in southern Alberta. You won’t have heard of Claresholm, and I doubt you will have ever heard of Alberta, but I know you had an appreciation for Canada—you had a Canadian aunt on your mother’s side, Aunt Annie, wife to your maternal uncle.
I didn’t read any of your books until I was an adult. I read Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over again as a young person, but I didn’t even know that you were friends with Professor Tolkien until after I read Narnia and some of your other books. I was getting interested in children’s literature while doing an undergraduate degree, and I read about the Narnia books in one of my anthologies. I didn’t know anything about Narnia at the time, but the anthology contained an excerpt from The Last Battle. Not long after, I was able to get the Narnia books and read them.
You may be interested to know that I had to get the series on cassette tape. I’m totally blind, and in those days I had to read everything on cassette. I read the Narnia books many times, and I have to admit, and please don’t take offense, I felt a little let down. You have to understand that I was young, and I had the idea that I could find another world like Professor Tolkien’s. Well, I’m much older now, and I still haven’t found anything to equal Professor Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth.
I’ve thought a great deal about the Narnia books, as well as many of your other books, and I’ve learned much from you over the years. For one, I’ve realized that you had different ideas about fantasy than your friend, Professor Tolkien. You had, for example, a greater sense of fun when it came to fantasy than he did—at least in most of the Narnia books, and maybe save for The Hobbit. I always thought Professor Tolkien must have taken great delight in writing that book. How could he not? Mr. Bilbo Baggins is such a delightful character. I thought you must have felt the same way about the Narnia books, although by the time you wrote The Last Battle, you seem to lose something of your sense of fun to an overwhelming seriousness. The end of the world is a serious thing, after all. But I could never manage to understand the joy the Pevensie children experience as they leave their old lives behind and enter the new Narnia. Perhaps I thought you were trying too hard to teach me something about Heaven.
I’ve always had many questions about the Narnia series, and I ask many of them every year in my children’s literature classes. I teach at a university here in Edmonton, and every year we talk about one of your books—usually The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here are some of the questions we ask:
Why is Father Christmas in the book? And why did you make him say, “Battles are ugly when Women fight?”
Why don’t Mr. and Mrs. Beaver share a bed? And how could Edmund have possibly eaten so much Turkish delight at a single sitting?
These questions might seem silly to you, but my students are intensely curious, and they genuinely wonder about these smaller details.
We ask larger questions as well—one of the main questions being, do we have to read the book as a Christian text? There are always a few students in the class who read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a young person, and they were told that the book was a way to better understand Jesus.
Well, back to my purpose in writing to you. I wanted to thank you for writing the Narniabooks, not to mention your science fiction books and all of your books on Christianity. I’ve read most of them, an I’ve wrestled again and again with the things you say about God, about pain, and about literature. Reading many of these books simply raises more questions for me, but I won’t bore you with those.
I will say, however, that I absolutely loved Out of the Silent Planet. I know you loved the works of Mr. H. G. Wells, and so do I. Reading Out of the Silent Planet took me right back to reading those books as a boy, and I found great joy in reading about Dr. Elwin Ransom’s trip to Malacandra.
This, finally, brings me to my real purpose in writing. You are one of those giants who walks my own literary landscape. You stride around in that landscape, spinning stories about dwarves and talking lions and the strange people of Mars. Like Jack who encountered giants of his own, I’m afraid to get too close for fear of getting trampled. I even sometimes steal from you, taking bits from the worlds you weave and using them in my own stories.
It wasn’t until I read Surprised by Joy that I became less nervous about getting too close. I was able to get a different sense of you as a man and a writer by getting a glimpse of you as a boy. As I read your description of losing your mother, then being sent away to that terrible school in England, I felt I had more of a connection with you than I realized. I too suffered a loss at a young age. I lost my cousin in a car accident. I didn’t understand love very well at the time, but I knew I loved my cousin. I was in the same car accident, and it was there I lost my sight. It was after that—in the hospital, in fact—that I began listening to Professor Tolkien’s The Hobbit on tape.
Having said all of this, I mostly want to say thank you. Thank you for your books. Thank you for your many words—those that have inspired me, and those that have challenged me. Thank you for sharing something of yourself. And most of all, thank you for giving me worlds where I can visit—places where I can get inside, walk around, and stretch my imaginative legs. These are places where I can wonder and ask questions, and most of all, return to when the world gets too big or too scary or too hard, and I need a familiar spot to rest and sort out my life and my thoughts.
Your faithful fan,
Bill Thompson

A Visit to Oxford, Part II

My daughter and I had six days in Oxford, three of which we used for day-trips—one to Stonehenge and two into London. Our final day in Oxford we dedicated to Lewis and Tolkien. On the Saturday, we got a bus on the High Street and headed to our car-park. The plan was to visit the places where Lewis and Tolkien had lived.
The Kilns is the house where Jack Lewis lived with Warnie, his brother, Mrs. Moore and her daughter Maureen. They purchased the house together in 1930, which is around the same time that Lewis was becoming a Christian—something that happened over the period of several years. The Kilns is outside of Oxford at Headington Quarry, but we found the house in only a few minutes.
Parking the car along a side street, we walked into what is now called Lewis Close—the short street leading up to the house and nature preserve. The house is unremarkable. It’s a quiet house on a quiet street. The place is maintained privately by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, so we weren’t able to get inside. I didn’t mind, particularly. This is the house where Lewis lived, and died, November 22, 1963.
We crossed the street and entered the park. The park has a pond—they call it a lake—and we walked about for a while. I was a little distressed at the amount of litter, and I got stung by nettles. A young family was also making their way through the park—a boy, apparently with the name of Jack, tagging along behind. Leaving the park, I feltsomehow let down, but I wasn’t sure why.
What exactly did you expect? I asked myself.
We stopped at the house once more, and I kept looking for the connection I wanted to feel. This was the place I had read so much about. This was the place where Lewis had lived for over thirty years.
Back at the car, we plugged Tolkien’s old address into the satnav and headed for Northmoor Road. And there, in not very long, was the house, number 22, one of two houses on this street where Tolkien lived with his family. The houses were tall and brick, and not the sort of place you would think the author of Lord of the Rings would live. But Tolkien, even more than Lewis, lived an ordinary life—married with four children, and working hard to raise a family.
After Northmoor Road, it was back to the car-park and Magdalen College. We wanted to look around the college grounds. We had to enter through the porter’s door again, but this time it seemed more normal—two lovely young women nodding and smiling, and handing us a leaflet on C. S. Lewis.
We found New Building right away, the building where Lewis lived on campus, and the place where the Inklings gathered in Lewis’ rooms on Thursday evenings. We wandered around inside another of the buildings, passing other visitors and students looking for their classrooms. A wedding was going on inside one of the courtyards, and the bells rang out from Magdalen Tower.
We saved Adison’s Walk for last. It’s a peaceful path encircling a deer park in the centre. Trees border the path, and a little river runs along one side. As I walked along, I thought of Tolkien, Lewis, and Hugo Dyson walking here in September of 1931. It was late, after an Inklings meeting, and the three men walked and talked of myth.
In a letter to his life-long friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote of that night:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even though I could not say in cold prose ’what it meant’. … Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: ….
I felt closer to Lewis and Tolkien on Addison’s Walk than I had anywhere else. Maybe it was the quiet, broken only by the sound of bells from the college—or maybe the relative solitude of this place gave me the chance to fully appreciate where I was. It wasn’t Narnia or Middle-Earth, but I was finally getting a glimpse into the lives of these men who lived very structured lives: teaching, reading, and researching; meeting with friends often to talk and drink and smoke, arguing about religion, philosophy, and pedagogy; and finally retreating into their imaginations to create and write into being the worlds that so many have come to love.
Lewis, C. S. C. S. Lewis, Collected Letters, Volume 1: Family Letters, 1905 to 1931. Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000. 975-76. Print.

A Visit to Oxford, Part I

Reading about Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings is something I’ve done for many years. I finally had the chance to visit Oxford this last August with my daughter, taking the time to visit Magdalen College where Lewis taught and lived, and to think about these men living their lives in Oxford more than half a century ago.
My daughter and I arrived in Oxford late on a rainy Monday. We had to leave our car in a car-park and take a bus into the city. Because it was late—nearly midnight—and we were tired and hungry, the whole thing seemed surreal to me. We got directions from our helpful bus driver, and set out to find the porter’s door where we could pick up our keys. We had reserved two rooms in the residence at Magdalen College.
Did I say it was rainy and dark?—that we were tired and hungry? We hauled our suitcases along the imposing wall of the college, past occasionally by groups of drunken students—something I later learned has been a feature of the city for more than five hundred years.
We were lost. We were definitely at the college, but where was the door? We crossed the High Street, and my daughter spotted a darkened door in the forbidding stone wall of the college. It was unmarked, but there seemed no other entrance. WE went to it and rang the bell. A wizened little man let us in, and we told him we had booked rooms at the college. He shuffled around until he found our names, then handed over two sets of keys.
I’m in a Dickens novel, my tired brain said. I knew I was in a Dickens novel; if I were in a Harry Potter novel, things would seem even weirder.
We finally got into our rooms, and in a moment of weakness I wished desperately I was at home, and not in this strange place.
Sleep, coffee, and a full English breakfast the next morning made Oxford look much friendlier. It was still raining, but a rainy morning with the street full of people was much different from what we had met with the night before. The place we found to eat was The Rose—a snug little café down High Street from Magdalen. We went back to that café several times over the next few days.
We spent the first day wandering about Oxford. We had a bus tour of the town, which was helpful and informative. We spent time in the Ashmolean Museum, which was a nice way to escape the busy streets and the rain. We walked until we found The Eagle and Child, the pub where the Inklings met, often on Tuesday mornings, and called by them The Bird and Baby. We went back to the pub that night for dinner, and as we ate, I tried to imagine Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings sitting here, drinking and smoking and having spirited conversations.
As we walked back to our rooms, evening was settling fast. It had stopped raining, and the streets and pubs were filling with people. As we walked, I had to reconcile my sense of the past with this busy, vibrant present. Oxford has been a centre of learning in England and Europe since the eleventh century. Its history is long, and Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Inklings are only a small part of that history, but I was intent on discovering something of them while I was here.

Travels in Britain, a Literary Pilgrimage

For the last five years, I’ve been trying to arrange a trip to the UK. I finally managed it, and now I’m here. The last time I tried to travel to Britain, I had to cancel because of family matters. That was for a Harry Potter conference in Scotland. Much of the travelling I’ve done recently is like that—taking trips to places, but always to a conference. Travelling to conferences means that you need to attend sessions, and you get less of a chance to see the place you’re visiting.
This time it’s different. I’m travelling with my daughter, and we are hitting as many interesting sites as we can. Because so much of my reading and academic work is tied to this island, my trip feels as much a literary pilgrimage as it does a holiday. We’ve already seen many places in and around Glasgow, but so far my favourite has been visiting the antonine Wall near Falkirk.
The Antonine Wall is a roman Wall built around 142 C.E., which was a way for the romans to try to push their territory into what they called Caledonia. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, a hundred miles to the south, the Antonine Wall was a turf wall built on a stone foundation. The foundation remains, but little else. You can also find the remains of a roman fort known as rough castle nearby. The romans abandoned the wall after only eight years, withdrawing south to Hadrian’s Wall.
We got spectacularly lost trying to find the wall—missing a sign, and getting sent in circles by the ubiquitous round-abouts, which seem to be the favoured way of moving traffic here. Once we found the site of Rough Castle and the Antonine Wall, we got out of the car and began to wander. There’s a dog park on the other side of the wall, and people were out walking dogs or jogging in the late afternoon.
There I was, my hands on the wall—an ancient foundation, now covered with moss and grasses, built nearly two millennia ago by the romans. We walked farther on to the site of the fort, and I stood on the remains of the rampart, and thought about the romans and their efforts to push their way into this country. Who knows what the peoples of northern Britain thought of these southern invaders. We of course can speculate, and I could feel my imagination running away with the possibilities. I thought of Tolkien as we followed a path lined with large stones leading to the fort, , and standing on the old rampart I thought of the books I’ve read by rosemary Sutcliff—books such as The Eagle of the Ninth, in which Marcus and Esca, his friend and former body slave, journey into the north to discover the fate of the lost Ninth Legion.
The hills, the quiet, and the ancient stones covered in grasses fill me with an emotion I can’t articulate. The place itself inspires the imagination, but I also feel a connection to the landscape and its people through the books I’ve read that were in turn inspired by these same places and their histories.

Moral Lessons, Life Lessons, and Reading for the Sake of Reading

Something I encounter regularly in my children’s literature courses is the student who wants to attach a moral to folktales, or the student who insists on ascribing a lesson to kid’s books. I find it interesting that so many readers assume that children’s books necessarily carry a lesson. As parents, teachers, and readers we seem to want them to do just that.
I won’t rant about it here, but I will say this. Adults think, for the most part, they have a good idea of what childhood is about—mostly because they’ve been there and lived it. The problem is that your understanding of childhood changes once you get to the other side. And it’s never quite how you remember it. Nonetheless, most adults consider themselves to be an authority on something they aren’t—hence, books and stories that carry lessons for children.
This is not to suggest that books for kids don’t have lessons. Writers of the nineteenth century, especially, were interested in writing stories that carried a lesson for children. Try reading Maria Edgeworth’s the Parent’s Assistant. “Lazy Laurence” is a story rife with lessons—everything from being honest and industrious to not being lazy or not lying. Such an approach to children’s books and stories continues to this day. the Berenstain Bears, the Franklin books, and any number of books for kids have lessons at their heart. But not all. My question still stands—why do adults want to read all kid’s books this way?
If I pick up an adult book—let’s say Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I tried to read earlier this year (and yes, my reading has some serious gaps)—I don’t start reading it because I’m looking for a lesson. Don’t get yourself into debt with crazy old women? Get yourself into therapy before you kill someone? I could derive endless lessons from such a book, but the fact is that the psychology of Crime and Punishment is potent, and I wasn’t able to exist in the headspace of its main character. This tells me that I’m not ready to read this book.
What happens when I read a kid’s book? I’m no more looking for a lesson than I am when reading a book for adults. I first read Lord of the ringsat twelve. For years afterwards, I kept reading fantasy because I wanted to find a world that would overwhelm me as completely as Tolkien’s. It didn’t happen, at least not in the same way. That was a hard lesson for me to learn—that my own expectations sometimes determined my reading so completely that it pushed me to find something that wasn’t there. But that’s my reading pathology.
The kind of longing I experienced as a young reader was sometimes mixed with despair. I knew, but wasn’t able to articulate, my deep longing for something beyond myself, a world that made sense in a way my own world didn’t.
When I was ten years-old, I lost my sight in a car accident that also killed my cousin. I loved my cousin with a boy’s adoration that knows no bounds. He was blind, and when I visited him on his family’s farm, we walked, rode the old horse Taffy, and played cowboys with a gusto that only ended with bedtime.
In Tolkien, I found a world that made sense of itself. It began with The Hobbit—a diminutive fellow named Bilbo Baggins, who fell into an adventure and found a strength in himself he never knew he possessed. He discovered leadership, friendship, betrayal, and loss. And Bilbo’s grief over losing Thorin after the Battle of Five Armies was as real as if it had happened to me.
I spent years thinking I could make sense of my own life the way things made sense in books. As I read more widely, I found that often there’s no sense to be made of loss or grief, but the impulse to do so is part of being human, part of being alive. That’s why I began telling stories. It gave me the opportunity to make sense, in small ways, of myself and the worlds I encountered.
How then do I explain to students that they shouldn’t read kid’s books with a lesson in mind? Not sure, exactly. I get them to think about characters, about motivations, about patterns of action, of plot, of theme. I get them to talk about their experience of reading particular books—how they reacted, why they liked it, or why they hated it. Reading is always a process, and just reading a book once won’t give you everything you need from that book. You may not be ready to read it. You may not be able to enjoy it or take it in. And it’s not a question of taste; it’s about you and the book you want or don’t want to read.
Not being able to read a particular book isn’t a failing. The books I’m not able to read fully, or at all—remember Crime and Punishment?—doesn’t mean I’m a bad reader. Having a particular taste for certain books, whether it’s romance, crime fiction, or fantasy, means those books speak to you in particular ways that make sense to you. But take the time, now and then, to read something outside your ken. If you don’t like it, that’s probably a good thing. That book will give you something about yourself that nothing else can. If you want a lesson, then you’ll get it. The book you don’t want to read will tell you something about yourself—something you may not want to hear. Reading taste is the easy way to read. Because I’m mostly lazy, I default to my reading tastes. But what I like and don’t like says little or nothing about the books I encounter. I can’t stand oatmeal—and I mean can’t stand it. It’s not that I just don’t like it; I can’t swallow the stuff. But me not liking oatmeal doesn’t change the fact that it’s good for me, good for other people, and just a solid and healthy food. Books are like that—food for your soul. Taste something different sometimes. It may not suit your palate, but your palate is only one, and it’s not going to determine the pallets of anyone else, and the book won’t care if you can’t read it.
Read here the final paragraph of C. S. Lewis’’ review of Tolkien’s the Hobbit, from the Times Literary Supplement, 1937. It’s as much a comment on reading as it is an endorsement of his friend’s book. Lewis saw something in The Hobbit before most people did, something that he knew would endure, far beyond childhood, and farther beyond anyone’s particular reading taste:
“For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grownups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”