An Interview with Katherine Langrish: British Author, Storyteller, and Folklorist

Author Katherine LangrishKatherine Langrish is an award-winning author of children’s and young adult historical fantasy. Her meticulous research, gorgeous prose, and instinct for a good story have won her many fans around the world.

Since 2009, Katherine has been the creator of the outstanding blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles where she shares her thoughts and fascinating anecdotes related to her literary and folkloric interests.

On April 23, 2016, The Greystones Press published Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales, Katherine’s first book of nonfiction in which she has expanded on and reworked some of her blog posts. The first print run sold out within days. Nicholas Lezard, writing for The Guardian, states: “Langrish has been collecting fairytales for goodness knows how long, and her knowledge and frame of reference are phenomenal.”

I enjoyed her book immensely, and I’m happy to announce that Katherine has agreed to be interviewed for Luna Station Quarterly.

CH: When and how did you first realize that there was a world of fairy tales unknown to most people?

Katherine Langrish: I grew up reading Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books – wonderful collections of stories from across the world (they were actually edited by his wife Leonora) – as well as the Grimms’ tales and Hans Christian Andersen’s. That wasn’t unusual when I was a child, though it may be now.  Back in the sixties, editors in general seemed keen to publish re-tellings of myths and legends for children: in Britain, Puffin books published many fabulous collections by the likes of Barbara Leonie Picard and Roger Lancelyn Green. So I had a good grounding there. Then more than twenty years ago I picked up a drab little brown book from a French bric-a-brac stall and discovered it was the 1850 edition of Thomas Keightley’s Fairy Mythology – folk and fairy tales from around the world. I bought it for two francs and for years it’s been my bible. This led me to read more and more of the works of other 19th century collectors. It really is like wandering through an enormous forest, so huge you know you’ll never explore it fully – but you keep going. Look at that alluring little path! I wonder where it goes? This old stump looks familiar; haven’t we been here before? But I don’t remember this patch of emerald moss, and what’s that glimpse of masonry between the trees? Could it be a castle wall?

CH: I really enjoyed your chapter called “Happily Every After.” You take something as simple and straightforward as a stock ending for a fairy tale, and turn it into something more self-knowing, in a sense. You say that fairy tales are not so naïve after all. They are rather tricksy, and “Happily ever after” can be viewed as a way to say “Well, get on with your lives now. The story’s over.” The phrase has nothing to do with the story’s characters living happily forevermore. It’s really all about us, the readers or listeners. When did this notion first strike you?

Katherine Langrish: “There was once – I don’t know where, at the other side of seven times seven countries, or even beyond them, on the tumble-down side of a tumble-down stove – a poplar-tree, and this poplar-tree had sixty-five branches, and on every branch sat sixty-six crows; and may those who don’t listen to my story have their eyes pecked out by those crows!”

That’s the beginning of a Hungarian fairy tale called ‘Prince Nettles’. As you can see, it’s a conscious, formulaic call for attention – an appeal to a possibly rowdy gathering of people to shut up and listen. This isn’t something we’re used to in the modern age: we expect stories to happen in silence. We read quietly to ourselves, or to a child at bedtime. If we go out to a special ‘storytelling session’ for which we’ve bought tickets, we behave respectfully and clap at the end. In the past, a story was something spontaneous that happened in the course of an evening with lots of other things going on. People are eating and drinking and doing chores and exchanging news, so before you can tell a story, you have to interrupt everyone else.  So it’s good to begin with an attention-grabbing, flamboyant opening which has nothing at all to do with the story you’re actually going to tell. It means by the time everyone’s settled down, nobody’s missed anything important.  The same applies to endings. Endings aren’t often quite so elaborate (sometimes they are) but they have a function too. According to the 19th century Scots collector J F Campbell, traditional tales in the West Highlands could sometimes go on all night or even be prolonged over several nights. So it’s helpful to have another formula that lets everyone know that the story is over. ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘They all lived happily ever after’ do the job perfectly well for more sedate gatherings – but you can see how much storytellers have enjoyed creating and using the more elaborate forms.

I learned this when I used to tell stories aloud to groups of toddlers. Small children have short attention spans. They are usually more interested in picking fluff from the rug than they are in sitting quietly and listening. If you want fifteen toddlers to listen to you, you have to use some kind of audio-visual ritual to get them involved. I used to bring a box with some bright or interesting object inside. ‘Sticks, Stocks! The story’s inside the box!’ the children and their mums and I would chant together. Then I would open the box and out would come the object, and a story somehow connected with the object would follow, and then – ‘Sticks, Stocks! The story goes back in the box!’ – the process would be reversed.

CH: In your chapter on fairy brides and bridegrooms, you tell us that these tales are meant to be a warning against taking a supernatural to wed, or being wooed by one yourself. These types of stories are found the world over. What are we to take, practically speaking, from these types of stories today?

Katherine Langrish: We’re used to fairy tales ending in a marriage, aren’t we?  Yet the stories in which mortals wed fairy brides or bridegrooms tend to be about the marriage itself. They are usually sad, they usually end in break-up, and they seem to deal with the strain of maintaining an equal relationship. One partner, usually the husband, is satisfied with the marriage, not realising his wife (whom he may have captured or tricked) is full of repressed resentment. Then he breaks a promise or a prohibition which after years of union he has come to think trivial, and she leaves at once. Maybe the stories warn us not to take our partners for granted, to try to see things from the other person’s point of view.

CH: While I was reading the fairy bride chapter, I began to sing to my latest rescue dog, a pup that spent many days alone in the streets of a large city. He seemed enchanted by my not-so-great singing voice, and the notion popped into my head: I’m a fairy enchantress, as far as he’s concerned. It made me see the fairy bride/bridegroom tale in an entirely new way, and it was inspired by your work. What have you heard from others about how your research and writing has inspired them?

Katherine Langrish: That’s a lovely story, Cathrin. Of course you are a fairy enchantress to your dog! You have plucked him out of poverty and danger and carried him to a world of warmth, love, safety and all the food he needs. As for the prohibitions you impose on him (probably involving rugs), he’ll learn them fast enough and I bet he won’t forget them either.

I think the most touching message I ever had was from a little girl in Australia who wrote to tell me she’d always struggled with reading until she found my ‘Troll’ trilogy, which is based on Scandinavian folk and fairy tales. She wanted me to know that she loved them so much, she’d read all three of them right through (a total of 160,000 words or so) and was no longer in the remedial reading class. If they really like a book, children will read more willingly, more eagerly. It sounds obvious, and it is, – but how is a child to find the right book? For a child, opening a new book is a challenge. It may be too hard. It may be boring. There may be something scary inside. And so we need to read with our children, and read a variety of different stories to them so that they get the chance to find out which ones they really like.

CH: In your chapter called “Enchanted Objects” you tell the story of the poor girl who is given a magic porridge-cooking pot. The girl’s mother doesn’t know how to stop the pot when her daughter is away, and a tsunami of porridge descends upon their village. The village folk must eat their way out of the situation. This sort of wish-fulfillment is meaningful to folk who have experienced hunger and other deprivations, as you point out. Are fairy tales peculiarly adapted to merge humor with pathos, as opposed to making light of a serious situation?

Katherine Langrish: Fairy tales are often ambiguous. ‘Sweet Porridge’, the story you allude to, is very short indeed. But you could interpret it as purely comic, as a cautionary tale (‘listen to instructions’), as a pessimistic tale (‘things always go wrong’), or as a semi-sweet, semi-sad little tale about hunger. Many ‘funny’ fairy tales have, if you think about them for a moment, a more serious side. The Grimms tale ‘Hans In Luck’, for example, is all about a boy so simple, so foolish, that he gradually barters away seven years’ wages – losing out on every transaction – till he is left with nothing at all. Are we meant to guffaw at his stupidity?  Maybe … but look carefully at the last sentence and think about it:

‘With a light heart and free from every burden he now ran on until he was with his mother at home.’

CH: In the enchanted objects chapter, you have a wonderful way of including an electric kettle among your list of enchanted things. What enchants you on any given day?

Katherine Langrish: Oh, enchantment is everywhere, but enchantment is different from magic. Magic is a technique; enchantment is a state. People use magic/technology to supply something they lack. If you turn around Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim that ‘A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, it’s really a way of saying that human beings get accustomed to things very, very fast.  If magic was normal it would be technology and we’d take it for granted. Instead of marveling, we’d just grumble if the magic wand failed to work one morning.

But enchantment, as I’ve said, is a state – a way of experiencing the world. In Act 4 of Chekhov’s play ‘Three Sisters’, just before he goes out to fight a duel and lose his life Tuzenbach says to Irina, ‘How beautiful those trees are! And how lovely, when you think about it, life ought to be with trees like that.’ We need these life-affirming moments. Enchantment comes like a blessing, when you recognise beauty and relax into it: sunlight on the wall, the love in your dog’s eyes, a child’s smile, the sound of rain on the window. Or when you look again at something like an electric kettle or a smart-phone and suddenly see it for the marvel it is. I have no idea how the laptop I’m typing on actually works. I couldn’t make one for the life of me. Yet by some magic – that’s the technical bit – these words I’m writing are going to fly away and be shared out to your laptops or ipads or whatever … And if that’s not enchantment, I don’t know what is.

CH: When a girl marries a prince or a king, it is a metaphor for the worldly success of an active, achieving heroine, just as it is for a boy who marries a princess. You tell us this in such a matter-of-fact way, and I agree with you. But there is good reason for feminists to be wary, especially when, for many people, fairy tales are associated with Disney’s versions. Do you perceive a sea change? Is there a meaningful role for fairy tales in the lives of Millenials?

Katherine Langrish: Frozen has shown that Disney is beginning to catch on and improve its presentation of female characters in fairy tale animation. As it’s been such a success, I should think we will see similar efforts. After all, the fairy story which Frozen was very loosely based on was Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ – in which the boy, Kay, is saved by the girl, Gerda. Now you may object that Gerda saves Kay by exercising the so-called ‘feminine’ virtues of faithfulness and a loving heart – by walking barefoot in the snow, dropping warm tears on the ice in his eye, etc – and you’d be right. Andersen was a 19th century male, and his heroines have to endure a lot – but nevertheless, Gerda saves Kay. And this occurs in fairy tales far more often than you might think. The ‘Little Mermaid’ saves the prince from drowning, remember?  Disney’s happy ending wrecked the mournful beauty of the tale, but arguably it sent a healthier message.  It would be lovely to see a film company picking up on one of the more adventurous fairy tales in which the heroine is capable from the start. Nobody outshines ‘Mollie Whuppie’, for example.

CH: In your chapter “Briar Rose, or ‘Time be Stopped’” you say that the point of the story of “Sleeping Beauty” is that time has stopped. You write this gorgeous line: “There’s beauty and terror there, the whole little jewelled world frozen and forgotten, like Pompeii under its ash, for a hundred years.” The story of Sleeping Beauty has potential energy, rather than the kinetic energy of a grand adventure. What do you think it says about a society, if anything, if society prefers one type of story energy over the other?

Katherine Langrish: Our society does have a bias towards movement and action. The other day I was watching a stream of kids coming home from the local primary school.  Nearly every child was propelling itself along on a scooter or bike, while the mothers were pushing buggies. I found myself wondering at this mania for wheels. What are wheels for? To help you go faster. And faster. And faster. Why? To ‘save time’ …  It was a warm spring day. Those families could have strolled along side by side, talking. Instead, the kids were scooting along ahead, the mums were calling them to stop at the corners, look out for other pedestrians – it was all excitement, movement. Nothing wrong with that, but we need to take time as well as save it – take time simply to be, to look and breathe and feel. This passing moment is all we actually have. We should value it.

CH: How have fairy tales enriched your own writing?

Katherine Langrish: I’ve used fairy tales and folklore in all my own novels for children and young adults and can’t imagine what it would be like to write without them. Everything we read and love ultimately affects not only how we write, but who we are and how we interpret the world. In my second book Troll Mill, for example, I found in the old folk tale of the selkie bride (who returns to the sea, deserting her husband and children) a metaphor for post-natal depression. If that sounds like a terrible thing to put in a children’s book, of course I didn’t spell it out! ‘Not spelling things out’ is the whole point of a metaphor. It’s there to be interpreted: or not. Fairy tales work like poetry, full of deep meanings – you can leave them alone or you can explore. And I think the children’s books which we keep reading into adult life are the ones which allow this depth and complexity.

CH: You have been described as a collector of fairy tales. If you could design, without the limitations of reality, a fairy tale museum, what would it be like?

Katherine Langrish: Am I a collector of fairy tales? I’m not sure; somehow it feels rather more as if they’ve collected me. And I’m certain that fairy tales don’t belong in museums. Much as I enjoy visiting museums, they are places where you are allowed only to look at the exhibits. You can rarely touch and experience them. So if I had limitless powers I’d take you into that place I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, the fairy forest. There are all sorts of ways in – gilded gateways, iron-studded castle doors, holes in hills, the lowly dark doorways of cottages, narrow mountain trails. The Management may provide you with a guide at first, but don’t be fooled. Each visitor is soon left alone, each visitor takes a different path. Birds are singing for joy everywhere, but as soon as the sun goes down the owls begin hooting oracles and warnings. You see a lighted window and come to a cottage. Peeping in, you see robbers carousing. Or perhaps an old woman muttering spells, or a beautiful girl all dressed in gold. Or three toads with crowns on their heads. They may be kind to you or they may not. You don’t know the rules, but you learn fast. You learn to be courteous to everyone, no matter who or what they appear to be. You trade kindnesses, you keep promises, you remember your debts. You follow the paths wherever they lead, never knowing exactly where you’re going or what’s going to happen next. Friends betray you, lovers desert you. You spend seven years weaving shirts from stinging nettles or climbing glass mountains in iron shoes. You’re unfairly accused. You suffer terribly, you weep tears of blood, but you keep up a high heart and courage. You journey on and on even though you’re entirely lost, and in the end, somehow – this is the promise of the fairy forest – you will find yourself, and you will be found.

Did you enjoy it?  On the whole, you suppose you did? I’m glad. It took much longer than you expected it would? We do explain in the small print that nothing in the fairy forest is timed…  You thought it would be more like Disneyland? I’m sorry. No one warned you that you might lose body parts or be transformed into an animal? Don’t you know the first thing about fairy tales? And now you’d like to be shown the way out? Ah. You should have asked that question before you went in. I can’t show you the way out, I’m afraid. There isn’t one.

CH: I highly recommend your book for anyone who cares to be initiated into the wild world of fairy tales. Can you recommend another book, story, or essay—a gateway really—for a beginner who wants to become acquainted with the meat-and-potatoes fairy tales, as opposed to their glamorous, and not always authentic, cousins?

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Katherine Langrish: Thank you! If after this awful warning readers are willing to look for more gateways into the entrancing but dangerous world of fairy tales, I can recommend Jane Yolen’s Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, and – if it’s still in print, Katherine Briggs’ A Dictionary of Fairies.

CH: How and where can we purchase your book?

Katherine Langrish: Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is available in paperback and as an ebook from and from the Book Depository. [The link to The Book Depository, which will send books to the US & Canada postage-free, is here]

CH: Katherine, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, and for sharing your experience and insights. I can’t wait for your next project.