George MacDonald is one of those Victorian authors whom people dislike, don’t understand, or simply have never heard of. I love The Princess and the Goblin, but try reading At the Back of the North Wind, which is Dickensian in its depiction of London, or The Princess and Curdie, which is a baffling and disturbing sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, written ten years after the first book. More baffling still are his fairy tales. These are not the beautifully written and finely drawn fairy tales of Oscar Wilde. MacDonald’s fairy tales can be dark, strange, and metaphorically jarring.
Here’s a passage from “The Golden Key” that will give you an idea:
“The sun was now set, and the darkness coming on, but the child thought of no danger but the bears behind her. If she had looked round, however, she would have seen that she was followed by a very different creature from a bear. It was a curious creature, made like a fish, but covered, instead of scales, with feathers of all colours, sparkling like those of a humming-bird. It had fins, not wings, and swam through the air as a fish does through the water. Its head was like the head of a small owl.”
MacDonald, George. “The Golden Key.”)
George MacDonald worked as a clergyman, but left the church to pursue writing full-time. He knew Charles Dodgson—yes, Lewis Carroll—and was a fan of the Alice books. People often think British fantasy for children gets its start with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But it doesn’t.
MacDonald is a father to British fantasy in the way that Daniel Defoe is the father to the survival story. Virtually every survival story, from Coral Island to Gilligan’s Island to Survivor, can be traced back to Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. As for MacDonald, people may know about him, but they probably haven’t read his books, and they usually don’t know how profoundly this writer influenced the development of fantasy in the twentieth century, particularly for such writers as C. S. Lewis.
If you want to know more about MacDonald, his life and influence, check out this truly fabulous online exhibition,
George MacDonald: The Forgotten Father of Fantasy Fiction.
The canvas was created by Live Life Aberdeenshire in conjunction with the BBC. It includes prints, photographs, and everything you will ever want to know about MacDonald. Just remember to read one of his books as well.
I have a story out this month. This one is a fairy tale, “The Bronze Egg.” I’ve written fractured fairy tales, and what I call apocalyptic fairy tales. But this one is an honest to goodness folktale—published this month in a collection of original fairy tales called Fantasia Fairy Tales. You can find the eBook here.
When my kids were small, we told stories at bedtime. I tried getting print-braille books for us to read from the CNIB library, which I did, but they came so infrequently that I needed to find another way to satisfy my children’s appetite for stories. I found an old anthology of stories from my first children’s literature course. I then found books of fairy tales and retold them to my kids. When I ran out of stories I had learned, I made them up; and when I was too tired to make them up, I cobbled them together out of anything and everything I’d ever read.
My interest in fairy tales has never waned. They appear in my courses, and I talk about them with students. I continue to write them, and I love to read them.
They are, even now, a guide to living—at least metaphorically:
1. Don’t wander off the path.
2. Avoid strangers who might want to eat or enslave you.
3. Be weary of seemingly helpless old people who want to lock you in a cage or a cupboard.
4. Beware of those close to you who suffer excessive jealousy.
5. and always—always always—be kind to animals.
Here is something from the blog archive. I write more than one kind of fairy tale. My fractured fairy tales are for kids, but my apocalyptic fairy tales are for adults. You can find “Hansel and Greta,” one of my apocalyptic fairy tales here. Enjoy!
February 26 is National Tell a Fairy Tale day. If you aren’t prepared to tell a story, then read a fairy tale to anyone who will listen—your kids, your mom, your dog. Or just curl up with a copy of Hans Andersen or the Brothers Grimm and get lost in the magic. There’s no better way to keep the frigid weather at bay.
If you want something more adult, check out my apocalyptic version of “Hansel and Gretel,” published in July, 2018, in Feast Journal. My story is called, “Hansel and Greta.”
If you want something to listen to, check out this 2014 recording from the TALES Festival, Daughters of Destiny. I was telling stories in the beautiful St Michael’s Church in Ft. Edmonton Park. Enjoy!
A couple of years ago, I was rereading some Grimms’ fairy tales, and I wondered what these stories would be like if they were set at a time when society had collapsed. IN other words, what if I took these stories and put them in an apocalyptic context. Then, I wrote “Hansel and Greta.”
I’ve written this sort of thing before. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a collection of fractured fairy tales that offered new ways to look at older tales, such as “Red Riding Hood, Again Revisited” and “Mr. Wolf and The Seven Kids, An Urban Fairy Tale.” That collection is called Fractured and Other Fairy Tales. These stories are aimed more at kids, and I had my own daughters in mind when I wrote them.
In retelling Grimms’ stories as apocalyptic fairy tales, I have a different audience in mind. These are not stories for children; they are bleak and often violent, and, well, grim in the strictest sense of the word. Having said that, I’ve tried to maintain the spirit of the original tales, in as much as I’m able.
“Hansel and Greta” is the first of these stories to find a home. I must have sent it to a dozen journals before Laura Mansfield and Feast picked it up. Feast is an eclectic online journal about food based in Manchester, UK, and the latest issue is called Consuming Children. Thank you to Laura and the people at Feast for publishing the story. I’m especially grateful that Laura saw the piece as something she could include. Enjoy the story, check out the rest of the journal, and, as always, post any comments.
A couple of years ago, I was stopped outside MacEwan by a young woman.
“Are you Mr. Thompson?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, thinking she must be a student.
“I was in your daughter’s class in elementary. You used to come in and tell us stories.”
I was touched that this young woman remembered those stories and thought to say hello, especially since elementary for my kids was more than a decade in the past.
My kids have always had an experience of books. Their mom started reading to them before they could talk. For my part, I tried ordering print-braille books so I could read to them as well, but books took ages to arrive by mail, which meant the whole thing was more frustrating than anything else.
I was lucky enough to have taken a children’s literature course with Jon Stott during my undergrad, so out of desperation, I pulled out my old textbook to see if I could find a story to tell my two-year-old. The first story I ever told her was “Kate Crackernuts.” She heard that story every night for three months, and I doubt she heard the ending until much later. But telling stories became part of the ritual at bedtime, which lasted for years.
Later on, when my kids started school, I went into their class and told stories—stories I found in books or on the Internet. The teacher had the idea to turn all those stories into a project. The kids drew pictures of their favourite stories, and my mom and another parent transferred those pictures onto fabric. The whole thing became the Storytelling Quilt.
Reading aloud to children is a powerful thing. Research suggests reading aloud helps both general literacy and reading acquisition. But consider –reading to your own kids means spending time with them, and spending such time goes a long way to actively showing your kids how much you care.
February 1 is World Read Aloud Day, sponsored by Scholastic. If you can, take the time to read aloud to a child in your life. And if you can’t manage it for February 1, remember that every day of the year offers such an opportunity.