Children Into Swans by Jan Beveridge

Children Into SwansTitle: Children Into Swans
Author: Jan Beveridge
Published: 15 October 2014
Publisher: McGill-Queens University Press
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: non-fiction, literary studies
Rating: 5/10

European fairytales are full of outlandish stories and tropes that have now become so commonplace that few question their many oddities. Children Into Swans aims to explore the origins of the fantasies we often find in these stories – creatures like ogres, giants and trolls, tropes such as triads, spells and prophecies, and plots involving humans turning into animals or being led into beautiful parallel worlds where time moves at a different pace.

The simple answer is that all these things and more existed in older stories. Author Jan Beveridge is particularly interested in Celtic and Norse mythology and folklore, so this book provides a run-down of those stories, and their connections to pre-Christian cultures.

And that’s all there is to it really. The blurb advertises a discussion of the link between the pagan world and fairy tale, but that doesn’t go much deeper than Beveridge confirming that fairy tales were borne of older stories from pre-Christian cultures. Most of the book is spent describing these stories, while discussion of actual religious and cultural practices is relegated to a few chapters on festival days, like Samain or Midsummer. Quite often, Beveridge shies away from discussions on pagan practices, with statements like:

it is not productive or even possible to try to define the role of the elves in pagan beliefs

Usually, associating the stories of the gods in mythology with actual religious beliefs is not useful, since so little evidence of pre-Christian religion remains.

There is no knowing what obscure winter rite or concept of dark powers is reflected in the Midwinter stories, or where the prevailing theme of encounters with trolls, giants, ghosts, and monsters on Christmas Eve came from.

Having decided to tread carefully when talking about pagan religious practices, Beveridge ends up giving many more examples of Christianised folklore, such as elves and fairies who can’t enter churches, curses that are broken through baptism, or the death of old mythical worlds in the face of Christian belief.

The way this information is presented is somewhat amateurish. The book is composed largely of lists of facts and examples in paragraph form. A topic is identified – eg. humans making bargains with fairies, or fairies and babies – and Beveridge briefly describes its qualities and/or the way it manifests in stories. Something like this:

Conditions of any bargain with the fairies were hard. From time to time, a human was forced into a promise that resulted in losing an only son or first-born child to them, which was another way they could take a human child. One thing that fairies appeared especially to care about was honour in keeping to a bargain; a promise to a fairy had a sanctity about it like a sacred oath.

Or this:

There are a great many folk tales of newborn babies, not yet baptized, who are stolen and replaced in their cradles with weak and starving fairy children called changelings, which stay small, sickly, and deformed. There are also stories of healthy young mothers taken away from their families to attend upon fairies who require the care of a mortal midwife and human milk for their babies. A woman who helps the fairies in this way may be given a little bag with instructions not to open it until she returns home. Then she finds it is full of fairy gold, and the family can live on that until the end of their days.

Occasionally, the entire text of a story is presented as an example of a creature or trope, but this often seems pretty random. She seldom states why she chooses to offer a particular story to illustrate one idea but not another, since there are always multiple options. It could simply be that the stories printed in full are her favourites. Whatever the case, the inclusion of these stories is one of the better things about this book, but they’re still pitifully wasted in that Beveridge never offers a close reading of them. She just states what trope will be found in the story, gives us the text, and then carries on listing stuff. There is so much more in each of these stories than whatever trope they’re meant to illustrate, but if you want to get any more from them, you’ll have to do your own reading and research.

On the whole, Beveridge comes off as a rather timid academic. It’s not just that she doesn’t do offer close readings of key texts; she almost never offers her own conclusions, period. She just lays the facts before us, seldom providing deeper insights or interpretations. When she does, she usually pulls some uninspired quote from another writer, or makes some forgettably generic statement, often to conclude a chapter.

All this makes it pretty tedious to read. There’s nothing demanding about it, but after even a short chapter listing the characteristics of giants, household spirits, or whatever, your mind just starts to wander. It’d actually be so much more enjoyable to read a more complex text that explores these ideas in greater depth because then you’d have something to engage with, rather then just facing an onslaught of basic information.

Reservations aside, however, this book isn’t without merit. Beveridge might not have drawn any of her own conclusions or offered in-depth readings, but she has collected a wealth of basic information on Celtic and Norse folklore and mythology. Unless you’re already very well-acquainted with the topic, it’s impossible not to pick up at least a few interesting tidbits or get a feel for how old and influential these ideas are. Beveridge also notes that these stories influenced Tolkien, and I enjoyed seeing just how much LOTR and The Hobbit borrows from Celtic and Norse mythology. It’s also easy to see that these stories still form the building blocks of some contemporary fantasy.

Now that I think about it, that’s the appeal of this book – trivia. It’s not a discussion, but a collection of teeny snippets of information. It reads like a series of Wikipedia pages, but Wikipedia pages have their uses. I would never read this cover to cover again, but I would certainly re-read a specific chapter as an introduction to a particular topic, before digging deeper. If you’re looking for a reference work or introductory text, this might be a good choice, although personally I’d take a good look at other options first.

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Up for Review: Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner

It’s been ages since I did one of these posts… Don’t know why I stopped because I love showcasing new books. And I’m looking forward to this study of fairy tale by essayist Marina Warner:

Once Upon a Time WarnerOnce Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale by Marina Warner

From wicked queens, beautiful princesses, elves, monsters, and goblins to giants, glass slippers, poisoned apples, magic keys, and mirrors, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries. These fantastic stories have travelled across cultural borders, and been passed down from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling. Few forms of literature have greater power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination than a fairy tale.

But what is a fairy tale? Where do they come from and what do they mean? What do they try and communicate to us about morality, sexuality, and society? The range of fairy tales stretches across great distances and time; their history is entangled with folklore and myth, and their inspiration draws on ideas about nature and the supernatural, imagination and fantasy, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Marina Warner has loved fairy tales over her long writing career, and she explores here a multitude of tales through the ages, their different manifestations on the page, the stage, and the screen. From the phenomenal rise of Victorian and Edwardian literature to contemporary children’s stories, Warner unfolds a glittering array of examples, from classics such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, and Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, to modern-day realizations including Walt Disney’s Snow White and gothic interpretations such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner digs into a rich collection of fairy tales in their brilliant and fantastical variations, in order to define a genre and evaluate a literary form that keeps shifting through time and history. She makes a persuasive case for fairy tale as a crucial repository of human understanding and culture.

Publishing date: 1 December 2014
Publisher: Oxford University Press

The Author
Website
Twitter
Wikipedia

Up for Review: Helen of Troy

I don’t get around to reading nearly as much non-fiction as my nobler self would like to, but I’m quite excited about this study of the paradoxical nature of female beauty embodied in the myth of Helen of Troy.

Helen of Troy by Ruby BlondellHelen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation by Ruby Blondell (Oxford University Press)

NetGalley Blurb:

The story of Helen of Troy has its origins in ancient Greek epic and didactic poetry, more than 2500 years ago, but it remains one of the world’s most galvanizing myths about the destructive power of beauty. Much like the ancient Greeks, our own relationship to female beauty is deeply ambivalent, fraught with both desire and danger. We worship and fear it, advertise it everywhere yet try desperately to control and contain it. No other myth evocatively captures this ambivalence better than that of Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda, and wife of the Spartan leader Menelaus. Her elopement with (or abduction by) the Trojan prince Paris “launched a thousand ships” and started the most famous war in antiquity.

For ancient Greek poets and philosophers, the Helen myth provided a means to explore the paradoxical nature of female beauty, which is at once an awe-inspiring, supremely desirable gift from the gods, essential to the perpetuation of a man’s name through reproduction, yet also grants women terrifying power over men, posing a threat inseparable from its allure. Many ancients simply vilified Helen for her role in the Trojan War but there is much more to her story than that: the kidnapping of Helen by the Athenian hero Theseus, her sibling-like relationship with Achilles, the religious cult in which she was worshipped by maidens and newlyweds, and the variant tradition which claims she never went to Troy at all but was whisked away to Egypt and replaced with a phantom.

In this book, author Ruby Blondell offers a fresh look at the paradoxes and ambiguities that Helen embodies. Moving from Homer and Hesiod to Sappho, Aeschylus, Euripides, and others, Helen of Troy shows how this powerful myth was continuously reshaped and revisited by the Greeks. By focusing on this key figure from ancient Greece, the book both extends our understanding of that culture and provides a fascinating perspective on our own.

Helen of Troy: Beauty, Myth, Devastation will be published on 2 May 2013 by Oxford University Press.

Links:
Goodreads
Buy a copy: The Book Depository | Amazon | Amazon UK
On the publisher’s website

About the Author
Ruby Blondell is Professor of Classics at the University of Washington, co-editor/translator of Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides, and editor/translator of Sophocles: The Theban Plays. – From OUP
University of Washington profile page
List of works on Goodreads

September Round-up

I’m on holiday in South Africa again (yay!), which is my excuse for why I was rather quiet last week, and why I’ll remain quiet over the next two weeks, although I’ll try my best to keep reading.

I had a whopping nine eARCs of books that were published in September, but I only managed to read five of them and review four. On the bright side, I managed to finish an 800-page whopper that’s been on my tbr list since it was published in 2010. It wasn’t very good, but that’s life. At least I can say I read it.

But on with the round-up. Please forgive me for using multiple thumbnail images instead of the usual collage – I’m working on my netbook without a mouse, and it’s just too much of a schlep to work with the images. Anyway, I finally posted my review of The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, a literary horror novel set in a mental institution in Queens, New York.

I reviewed the two debut novels from new YA published Strange Chemistry. They were ok, but not exactly memorable. Shift by Kim Curran is a sci fi novel about teenagers with the power to undo their decisions. There was plenty of action and wish fulfilment for teenage boys, but too many holes in the worldbuilding for me to ignore.

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond was a better novel. It’s a mystery/romance based on a North American legend known as the Lost Colony. The relationship at the heart of the novel is sweet if a little implausble. There’s plenty of adventure, but the mystery and fantasy aspects of the plot were a let-down.

It’s been a while since I reviewed an indie novel, so I took on Painting by Numbers by Tom Gillespie. It’s a mystery/thriller about a man obsessed with finding a mathematical theory hidden in the details of an obscure Spanish Baroque painting. I liked the premise, and the author writes good conversations, but after a certain point the novel unravels and is ultimately unsatisfying.

The best novel I read in September – not to mention one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read – was the delicious John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. It’s a lovely mix of food, history, mythology, romance, conflict and tragedy. Highly recommended, especially for foodies.

Sadly, the next book I finished was one of the worst I’ve ever read – Cry to Heaven  by Anne Rice. I read it for a reading challenge where each participant lists five novels they would take with them if trapped on a deserted island. You have to read one novel from each person’s list. Cry to Heaven was a dreadful choice. If I was stuck with it on a deserted island I’d use it for kindling or toilet paper. It’s a total soap opera about a bunch of boring assholes. Most of it is predictable and it’s filled with boring, angsty whining. Rice’s prose is a hideous shade of purple, and the many sex scenes are written with ridiculous euphemisms. I only finished the novel for the sake of the reading challenge and because I’d committed to a buddy read.

Then I finally finished The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, which I’ve been reading slowly over the past few months. It’s described as “A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language”, and it’s utterly delightful. It’s funny and odd, full of the weirdest trivia about words. If my boyfriend was ever in the same room with me while I read this, I’d constantly interrupt him with “Hey, did you know….”

Up next was The Passage by Justin Cronin, a post-apocalyptic horror novel featuring vampires. This is the novel that I’ve had on my tbr since it came out. It was very disappointing – a mostly boring, frustrating read that should have been cut down to 400 pages. Instead I had to slog through 800, and none of it was scary. I’ll post my review later this week.

My last review book for the month was Breed by Chase Novak, another item in my search for a horror novel that can actually scare me. I’d heard great things about Breed, a story of a couple who go to extreme measures to have children. Bits of it were unsettling, but it didn’t achieve the desired level of creepiness that I’m looking for. Nevertheless, it was a fairly good book. Review to follow.

I ended the month on a light note with Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. Not one of his best, but charming as always, and I do love the witches.

And now, to continue working on that reading/reviewing backlog… First up for October is the YA post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel Pure by Julianna Baggot.

 

Yes, that’s what I assumed: On Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt

On TruthOn Truth by Harry G. Frankfurt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On Truth exists largely as a footnote to Harry G. Frankfurt’s earlier work, On Bullshit. An excellent example of a concise, clear argument, On Bullshit was a brilliant essay on the subject of bullshitting – of communicating without any regard for truth. Bullshitters, Frankfurt argues, are distinct from liars, because liars at least know what the truth is, even though they choose to contradict it. Bullshitters on the other hand don’t know and don’t care about the truth. They communicate with a specific goal in mind (eg. persuasion, improving their popularity), and will say anything in order to achieve this goal.

The purpose of On Truth is to fill a gap identified in the argument against bullshit – an explanation of the importance of truth, a reason why we should care about it. Frankfurt is not concerned with defining truth and falsity – for his purposes the universal, commonsense definition of truth suffices. For example, we all know the truth concerning such things as our names and addresses, and what it means to lie about these. Frankfurt begins by critiquing the relativism of postmodernists who vehemently deny the existence of any objective truth. Regardless of their claims, our lives depend on truth. Engineers need facts about building materials and measurements in order to build a bridge that will not collapse. Surgeons need to know truths about the human body in order to operate on it.

Most of Frankfurt’s argument is similarly utilitarian – we need truth to plan our day-to-day lives, to set long and short term goals, to better understand ourselves, to maintain social cohesion (which is based on trust). This all makes perfect sense and gives you good reason to want to KNOW the truth and, therefore, to resent being bullshitted and avoid bullshitting others. However, it offers little reason for why you should TELL the truth, because a lie might better serve your purposes, and therefore has more value in utilitarian terms. Frankfurt’s essay might convince bullshitters to respect the truth by finding out what it is, but whether they then decide to use it to be honest or deceptive depends on which of these options provides a means to their ends. Consequently, I found that On Truth only achieves part of its goal – it demonstrates the importance of knowing and using the truth, but falls short of convincing one not to lie.

If, when reading On Bullshit, you assumed that it would be better to know the truth, or if this is simply your general conviction, On Truth will probably be incredibly boring – a case of preaching a dull sermon to commonsense converts. There are no insights about truth that I found noteworthy. Compared with On Bullshit, it’s terribly banal. Despite the fact that I could easily have read this in about two hours, I lost steam halfway and only picked it up again about two weeks later, mostly because failing to finish such a tiny book would be just shameful.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to PunctuationEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lynne Truss is, perhaps, a little nuts about punctuation, but she has a point and she knows how to use it.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a very useful and very funny little book that discusses and illuminates punctuation in a manner that all but ensures you’ll know how to use it. Truss strongly believes that “[p:]roper punctuation is the sign and the cause of clear thinking” (202) and she argues her case very well. Using gorgeous little metaphors and images, historical origins, and a generous dose of humour (including hilarious errors), Truss makes clear the functions and importance of various types of punctuation. Not only does she explain the rules (where they exist), but she gives you a feel for language that deepens understanding.

Particularly amusing are the ‘raging’ debates that have occurred over such things as the frequency of comma use or whether or not one should use a semi-colon. Any editor or proofreader will be able to recall similar disputes (with fondness, frustration, sadness, anger, hilarity, etc., etc.). “If there’s one thing to be learned from this book,” Truss says, “it is that there is never a dull moment in the world of punctuation” (125). Heated debates on apostrophe use aside, I’m not sure if that’s true, but I can say that at least there’s never a dull moment in this book.

Highly recommended to everyone.

Two Stars by Paul Theroux

Two Stars (Pocket Penguin 70's #13)Two Stars by Paul Theroux
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick easy read, comprising 3 pieces on female movie stars – a definition of the ‘starlet’, a long article detailing Theroux’s interviews with Elizabeth Taylor (including an interview with her close friend Michael Jackson) and a very short article on the auctioning of Marilyn Monroe’s possessions.

A sense of tragedy runs through the whole book – the dashed hopes of most starlets in their longing for fame, the lost childhoods of Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson, Taylor’s many failed marriages, Marilyn Monroe’s miserable life and her eventual suicide. At the same time their bizarre lives and the money it generates feels incredibly surreal. Elizabeth Taylor bought Michael Jackson an elephant, Jackson went on tour with two cargo planes, carrying things like arcade games. The pair had a very playful relationship, perhaps trying to reclaim their lost childhoods, and imagine themselves as Peter Pan and Wendy.

Marilyn Monroe’s red stiletto’s were sold for $21 000; Tommy Hilfiger bought her thrift-shop jeans for $36 500. These were some of the low-priced items. Her sparkly ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress sold for over a million dollars, the record auction price for a woman’s dress. And yet, when Monroe died, she had only $5000 in the bank.

Two Stars reads a bit more like a biography than the study of celebrity in general that I had hoped for (with Taylor and Monroe as case studies), but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I’m from the wrong generation to know much about these stars though, so for someone who lived through their days of iconic fame (or just has a great interest in it), Two Stars would no doubt be an even better read.