Monday, 30 May 2016

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: How a blog turned into a book - guest post by Kath Langrish

It was back in 2009 that I created a blog on all things to do with fantasy, fairy tales, folklore and children’s literature – and named it Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.
     The phrase is borrowed from an Irish fairy tale in which the hero gallops his pony over ‘seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea.’  To some people this seemed a strange name for a literary blog. ‘Shouldn’t the title have something about books or reading in it?’ one friend asked, anxious for my success. But for me, ‘seven miles of steel thistles’ was evocative not only of what sometimes seems the endless struggle of writing a book, but of the trials of everyday life too.  Some Scottish fairy tales have a phrase with a similar lilt which tells how the characters must cross ‘seven bens and seven glens and seven mountain moors’  –  but the imagery isn’t quite so expressive.  Here we go, all of us: dancing the flames, kicking up the black dust on the scorched hills, leaping the stormy sea.

‘What use is a blog?’ people sometimes ask me. ‘Does it help to sell your books?’  I don’t know; maybe some?  That was never the point.  I started the blog because I wanted to share my love of fairy tales, fantasy and children’s books.  And I hoped to find new friends who shared that love. It happened. Both on- and off-line, I got to meet lots of lovely people who agreed with me that the capacity to imagine things that don’t exist is one of the most distinctive of human qualities.  Believe you me, keeping a personal blog running week by week and month by month for more than seven years is something you only do if you’re having fun – and it’s been amazing fun. Especially when many wonderful fantasy writers generously contributed guest posts on their own favourite fairy tales. You can catch up on these on this link: Fairytale Reflections.

Not only did I learn a lot, but all sorts of serendipitous opportunities have cropped up along the way. These included speaking about Mervyn Peake’s children’s books at his centenary conference at the University of Chichester in 2011 – becoming folklore editor for the new-fairy-tale journal Unsettling Wonder – and reviewing for the Sussex Folklore Centre’s journal, Gramarye.  Then just last summer the author Mary Hoffman, founder of the blog The History Girls, asked if I’d consider publishing a book of my essays on fairy tales with her new project The Greystones Press  – which she set up with her husband Stephen Barber on realising that ‘there were a lot of good books out there that the big publishing houses were not picking up.’  Too right, there are!  Thrilled and delighted, I agreed at once.

So here is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, in print and as an e-book: a collection of my own essays on fairy tales and folklore – inspired by the blog, but massively rewritten and extended.  Here you can read about fairy brides, selkies, Cú Chulainn’s geasa, water spirits, ghostly White Ladies, and the unexpected difficulties of owning an enchanted object.
     Where are the Lost Kings of Fairyland?  Was Cinderella really so passive?  What happened when William Butler Yeats successfully summoned the Queen of the Fairies?  Is there a connection between fairies and the dead?  Does ‘happily ever after’ mean what you think it does?

Great oaks from little acorns grow. I went back just now and had a look at the very first post I ever put up on my blog, back in November 2009. It was called ‘Fauns with Umbrellas’, and I quoted from C.S. Lewis’s essay Three Ways of Writing for Children, in which he suggests that the best way to write for children, and the only way he personally found viable, is when ‘a children’s story is the best art-form for something you have to say.’  To me this sounded misleadingly dry, and I felt he was putting the cart before the horse. I had this to say, and to this I hold:

I don’t honestly believe anyone chooses a genre because they decide in advance that it’s the best art-form for something they have to say. Rather, you get grabbed by an idea. Lewis himself said that ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ started with a picture in his head of a faun with an umbrella walking through a snowy forest.

Well, if you’re being haunted (and I mean haunted: possessed) by an umbrella-carrying faun in a snowy wood, what are you going to do with it? You’ll probably write a children’s story, because it’s going to take superhuman ingenuity to work it into a novel for adults. It’s not even very likely to become part of an adult fantasy; the domestic detail of the umbrella says that. Fauns in adult fantasy are going to be sexier. They’re going to riot through those woods in a wild, dangerous Dionysiac revel: and they’re not going to carry umbrellas.

No: the material imposes the form. Fauns with umbrellas will insist you write a children’s story for them. Other things may then find their way into the story: your moral outlook, world picture, concerns, loves, hates. No author is free of those. But throw away the umbrella and you’ve thrown away your book.

Or put it another way. Writing is like this: you let down your shimmering little hook into the deep pool where stories come from – and something bites!  You pull it up (if you’re lucky).  And see what happens!  The fish talks!  It opens its bewhiskered, blubbery mouth and speaks to you!   And to me it says, to me it always says: This is a fairy tale… 

6 comments:

madwippitt said...

Your Steel Thistles blogs are always fabulous and often send me scurrying back to the bookshelf to do some re-reading in the light of them ... Love the name, and shall be ordering up a copy of the book :-)

Susan Price said...

What madwippitt said. I've also been a follower of your blog since it started and I love it. I'm reading the book at the moment and thoroughly enjoying it. I don't think anyone who loves folk-tale could fail to enjoy it.

Ann Turnbull said...

Just ordered it - and am looking forward very much to reading it in the comfort of an armchair with a cat on my lap. The blog is wonderful, but I've never liked reading things online and used to long for this particular blog to become a book. So, thank you, Kath!

Lydia Bennet said...

A delightfully different post, thank you and welcome to AE. Following our passions seems to be the best way to make interesting things happen!

Leslie Wilson said...

It's a marvellous book!

Katherine Roberts said...

Welcome to AE, Kath! Yours is a perfect example of a brilliant blog feeding a book, rather than trying to do it the other way around.

Loving the cover and - like others here - I've been inspired to revisit some of your fairytale posts. (When is volume two coming out...?)