We spoke to Juliet Marillier about the fairy tales weaving through her writing.
* Many fairy tales weave through your books and short stories. Daughter of the Forest is based on ‘The Six Swans’ and Wildwood Dancing on ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’. What is it about fairy tales that attracts you?
I’ve loved fairy tales since I was a small child. Back then, it was the sense of wonder, the huge possibilities opened up by the idea that a magical realm exists alongside, or maybe inside, the world we know; and it was the thought that each of us can be a hero and achieve the apparently impossible. It’s often the gormless youngest brother or the quiet youngest sister who ends up saving the day – a person thought unimportant by his or her family and community. For a shy, bookish child, that was a reassuring message for the future!
Over the years I’ve continued to read fairy tales, folklore and mythology and to read scholarly discussions of them, and the magic has never died for me. Fairy tales are powerful. They make sense of real life dilemmas. They give people codes for living wisely and well, and they provide hope and reassurance in times of fear and doubt. When I use fairy tale material I do so with immense respect for all the storytellers who have come before me, each of them reworking the story to suit his or her circumstances.
* Were you told fairy tales as a child? If so, by whom? Or did you read them yourself?
My parents told me traditional fairy tales as well as ‘made-up’ stories like the one about the Boxadox, who nearly burned to death when he sat too close to the hearth fire (he was made of cardboard.) I’ve remembered that horrific scene for sixty years – thanks, Mum! Once I became an independent reader there was no stopping me, and I was fortunate to have a wonderful Children’s Library within walking distance of home. I devoured the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, with their fantastic multi-cultural range of stories and their evocative illustrations.
* Do you have a favourite fairy tale? If so, why that one?
It’s very hard to choose just one, but if pressed I’d say ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which I used very loosely as the basis for my novel Heart’s Blood. That story is deeply romantic and full of wonderful imagery: the garden with the forbidden bloom, the invisible servants; the magic mirror and the power of true love’s tears. In Heart’s Blood my heroine learns not to be a victim of other people’s poor choices, and the hero learns that a man need not be physically perfect to be worthy of love and to live a full life. I kept a lot of the original imagery – those motifs speak so strongly to the reader. And I used what lies at the heart of the fairy tale: a powerful message about love and acceptance. I think that is crucial to successfully reworking a fairy tale – understanding and respecting the wisdom that lies at its heart.
* Do you think fairy tales are for adults as well as children?
Most definitely. The notion that fairy tales are for children is quite a recent one – traditionally they were for the whole tribe, and in some parts of the world (Russia, for instance) you only told fairy tales after the children had gone to sleep, or they would have been frightened out of their wits. There have been various times in history when fairy tales were sanitised – the Victorian era in England was one such time – but the older versions have their share of violence, cruelty and death. They’re a coded version of real life, and real life is not all sunshine, flowers and happy endings.
* Do you tell fairy tales to your own children?
I told them to my children, and now they tell them to their children. I have a special section of my bookshelves for visiting grandchildren, and ‘their books’ include lots of fairy tales. My grandchildren and I also act out various stories with the help of a motley crew of stuffed toys.
* Do Australian fairy tales exist?
It depends on your definition of a fairy tale. A fairy tale is sometimes defined as a story of lovers parted by (usually uncanny) circumstances. Before they can be together again, they face a series of challenges, with which they may be assisted by magical companions – a fey being, a talking animal, a man or woman with a special gift. The story usually has a happy ending in which the lovers are reunited and/or virtue is rewarded. But the tale can end tragically with the death of one or both of the lovers. Often the happy ending is achieved through the intervention of a ‘deus ex machina’, an Otherworldly entity. There are many variants, but that basic framework is common to fairy tales from many cultures around the world. There are some Australian indigenous stories and some Maori stories that more or less fit the framework, but I would hesitate to call them fairy tales.
Then there are fairy tales that have come to Australia or New Zealand with settler cultures. A fairy tale changes with each re-telling; each writer / teller gives his or her own personal interpretation. Sometimes the original story is turned inside out and upside down. There are many talented writers in our part of the world working their own magic on traditional fairy tales to craft something at once old and new, something that fits perfectly into this land and culture. It would be too simple to call this kind of story a European fairy tale in an Australian or New Zealand setting. Done well, it can be far more.
And, of course, there’s always scope for brand new stories, either oral or written, that give a nod to the fairy tale tradition but use the antipodean experience, landscape and culture.
Juliet Marillier was born and brought up in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now lives in Western Australia. Her historical fantasy novels for adults and young adults have been translated into many languages and have won a number of awards including the Aurealis Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Sir Julius Vogel Award.
Juliet’s novels and short stories combine history, folkloric fantasy, romance and family drama. Her lifelong love of traditional storytelling is a major influence on her writing. Her most recent novel is The Caller, third book in the Shadowfell series, published in June 2014 by Pan Macmillan. She is currently working on the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical mysteries.
As well as writing full-time, Juliet acts as a mentor to developing writers and presents workshops on the writer’s craft. She is a regular contributor to the award-winning blog, Writer Unboxed. Juliet is represented by Russell Galen of the Scovil Galen and Ghosh Literary Agency.
Her lifelong love of folklore, fairy tales and mythology is a major influence on her writing. When not busy writing, Juliet tends to a small pack of waifs and strays. Her website is at http://www.julietmarillier.com