Why do we tell stories?

IMG_0080That’s easy – to entertain. To lull our children to sleep. To give people a way of occupying their minds on long plane journeys. And, of course, to make a living, if you happen to be the writer of that novel picked up in the airport bookshop.

It’s not as simple as that, though, is it? Because if you’re a writer, you can’t help writing, whether or not your stories ever get published. The urge to tell and listen to stories goes deep into our psyche and is common to all human societies, no matter how ancient.

IMG_0081
This was brought home to me forcefully – and wonderfully – on a recent visit to Arnhemland in the Northern Territories of Australia, a region of 37,000 square miles which has been returned by the Australian Government to its Aboriginal owners, the Yolngu. To visit this beautiful, wild (and very humid) landscape you need a special permit; or you book, as we did, with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris, the only safari company allowed to operate there.

Our guide took us on boat rides through the Cooper Creek billabong, gliding through powder blue water lilies under dense sawpalm forests and swamp paperbarks, past fields of wild rice, landing us in places where we scrambled through thick grass and over stones to vast overhangs in the rock face, shelters frequented by Aborigines for thousands of years.

IMG_0082And wherever they stayed, there are rock paintings: figures of men and women, spirits, birds, wallabies, fish, serpents – shapes delineated not separately but on top of each other, the same surface used over and over again with older layers of yellow and terracotta-coloured ochre fading under the more recent (still in terms of hundreds of years!).

This is because the paintings weren’t made for their own sake: they were done to illustrate stories. The man (art was strictly a male thing) telling the story would draw as he spoke, as if the rock face were a blackboard – and the teaching image that evokes isn’t far from the truth. Adults and children may have enjoyed the stories but that wasn’t their primary purpose: as Roberts and Parker put it in their book Ancient Ochres: The Aboriginal Rock Paintings of Mount Borradaile, ‘Dreaming stories… explain and enshrine all patterns of living and behaviour, from codifying domestic and inter-clan socio-economic arrangements to delineating what is edible.’IMG_0083

A scary story about the Rainbow Serpent, for instance, woken from his sleep by the screaming of a hungry child, whom he promptly devours along with its mother and the rest of the clan, highlights two important lessons, according to our guide. First, when moving around the land gathering food, it’s good to be as quiet as possible; second, mothers need to give their children plants that will satisfy their hunger, not cause them to cry more (as was the mother’s mistake in the story).


The formidable Rainbow Serpent

Sadly, apart from a magnificent representation of the Rainbow Serpent on this overhang (clearly an important painting, since – uniquely in this area – it bore not a trace of other story tellers’ drawing over it), we found no illustrations of this particular legend. Though if there had been, we wouldn’t be allowed to see them anyway, since Aborigines are careful about giving away cultural secrets. They don’t mind our seeing these historic drawings because we don’t know the stories that go with them. Without the words, the images mean nothing.

IMG_0084

Wallabies

Well, they knew a thing or two, these ancient peoples. While literary critics down the ages argue over the ‘moral obligation’ question, whether the purpose of stories – children’s, especially – should be to foster virtue and good behaviour in their readers, for the Aborigines, there were no two ways about it. Stories carried a vital lesson about survival in their environment: listening well could make the difference between life and death.  

If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for the writer’s and storyteller’s art, I don’t know what is.

Advertisements

The lost library of Dr Dee

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee is the title of a wonderful exhibition now on at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London. For a show dedicated to the most famous magician and alchemist England has ever produced, the RCP doesn’t strike one as the obvious venue. Yes, John Dee was a doctor but not that kind of doctor – unless you count drawing a patient’s astrological chart as an aid to diagnosis. Which in John Dee’s day – the Sixteenth Century – it would have been.

John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an extraordinarily gifted mathematician, engineer, navigational expert and astronomer. He was also an astrologer, magician and alchemist who devoted much of his life (and a considerable fortune) to discovering what he thought would be the key to the universe: the language God used to talk to Adam in the garden of Eden, the ‘Enochian alphabet’.

John Dee performing magic before Elizabeth 1

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth 1. By Henry Gillard Glindoni. Wellcome library, London

Cracking this language, he reasoned, would open up to him the secrets of nature, God’s creation. Bonkers, yes, but what I love about Dee’s fantastical ideas is the spirit of enquiry they sprang from; at heart he was a scientist, using – as other natural philosophers did – magic and alchemy as tools of discovery alongside more factual disciplines like mathematics and astronomy. In my research into Elizabethan magic for my children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, John Dee provided the perfect example of a conjurer using spells and charms in a positive – as opposed to a destructive – way.

3-IMG_1906

De Septem Secundeis by Johannes Trithemius, published in Cologne 1567. Royal College of Physicians.

A great scholar, Dee amassed 3.000 books in his house in Mortlake.  Unfortunately judgement of other people’s trustworthiness doesn’t seem to have been one of his strengths and in 1583 his own brother-in-law, left in charge while Dee travelled abroad, allowed the library to be plundered. Around 100 of the missing books were stolen by a man called Nicholas Saunders, and these were eventually bequeathed to the RCP, giving the college possession of the biggest portion of Dee’s original library still in one piece. This exhibition offers a fabulous chance to see 50 of them, together with a number of Dee’s own magical implements such as his obsidian mirror and crystal ball (useful for showing angelic spirits with whom he tried to converse).

2-IMG_1897

John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

Doodles in the margins – astrological tables, geometric shapes, human profiles and in one case, a splendid ship in full sail – give a delightful sense of the man who originally owned and loved these books. Go see! You have until 29th July, 2016.

https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee

How to be a great children’s books illustrator

Not only is Bananagirl of Mango Bubbles Books a perceptive reviewer, she’s an artist!  I love this drawing of Henry Fowst alone in his bedroom reading John Striven’s diary of 1586, with shape-changing demon Mephistopheles hovering over him…brrrr.

‘It was sooo gripping, I read the book in one week, one day, one hour, so there! (smiley face)’. For Bananagirl’s full review of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, go to Mango Bubbles Books.

Henry drawing

10 things I want my readers to know about me…

… as told to Female First.  This wonderful website invited me to make a list and after some scratching of head and counting of fingers (I have ten, which helps the arithmetical aspect no end), I got there.

If you want to know (course you do) what made me become a writer instead of a giraffe

Sunset-Free-Giraffe-Wallpaper
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

 

 

and find out about the inspiration behind my books, go to http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/the-tragickall-history-of-henry-fowst-griselda-heppel-902169.html

Ante thumbnail

How to Host a Diabolical Book Launch

IMG_6732Cor, what a weekend! Blackwell’s Bookshop hosted a FABULOUS launch fest on Friday for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. Much Feasting and Fun and a Foison (oh dear, I’m running out of Fs) of books sold.  It was a huge pleasure to see so many friends and particularly children enjoying Hetty Gullifer’s devilish canapés (Gullifer Eats) P1020410and listening in awed hushsomeness to extracts from the book given by two very polished young readers. No Faustian pacts were made (at least I hope not), though I couldn’t help noticing that some of the guests had adopted Mephistopheles’s signature colours of scarlet and blaP1020475ck in their dress.

Uncanny, eh.P1020321

Then lovely invitations from two of my favourite websites to contribute an article. First, a guest blog on Childtastic Books all about the ideas behind The Tragickall HIstory of Henry Fowst.  Then, How to Write a Book on Muddy Stilettos (nothing to it, er, nothing to it at all. Cough cough.)

IMG_6752

Phew. A well-earned rest beckons.

What do you mean, it’s only Tuesday?

5 top pacts with the devil in literature

The Faustian pact – we all know what it means. The idea of selling your soul to the devil in return for great wealth and power holds a powerful grip on the imagination; it can be applied to all kinds of dubious bargains, the whiff of danger adding excitement to the fantastic amount of money/power/enjoyment you expect to get out of the deal. How can that not make a good story?

To celebrate the imminent publication of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, here are five top devilish pacts in literature:

  1. To begin at the beginning… the Bible. You expected Marlowe, didn’t you? Nope. God got there first.  The Book of Job is the story of a good, faithful, man being put through terrible suffering, and all because God
    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    has a bet with Satan (seriously) over Job’s soul. Pointing out that Job is only good because he has an easy life, Satan gets God to agree that Satan can test Job’s faith by piling calamities on him. ‘ “All right, the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.”’ (Job 1, v 12, Good News Bible). Job comes through with flying colours (all the more amazing since Satan interprets ‘not hurting Job himself’ pretty loosely, killing his whole family and covering him with boils) and God wins the bet.

  1. Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. For the English-speaking world at least, this is the great setting of the myth that grew round Dr Johannes Faust, a sinister alchemist and magician who lived in SLIDE 4          Doctor FaustusGermany in the early 16th Marlowe has Faustus offer the demon, Mephistopheles, his soul in exchange for 24 years in which he might

Live in all voluptuousness;

            Having thee ever to attend on me;

            To give me whatsoever I shall ask

            To tell me whatsoever I demand,

            To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,

            And always be obedient to my will.

            (Doctor Faustus, Scene III)

Heady stuff – but you’d have to have tapioca for brains not to see that 24 years is hardly a good deal. Faustus fools himself by not really believing in damnation – ‘Come, I think hell’s a fable.’ (Doctor Faustus, Scene IV).  Big mistake.

  1. Goethe, Faust. The great 18th century German poet and dramatist took the Faust story and rooted it firmly in the Book of Job, making Faust’s soul the stake of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. Faust has a thirst for knowledge, a scientific curiosity impossible to satisfy because there are more secrets in the universe than he can ever discover. SLIDE 6 Goethe-Faust-Mephistopheles promises to fulfil his every wish in return for his soul; but just as God bets the demon that Faust will ultimately return to Him, so Faust bets Mephistopheles that the demon can’t win his soul because Faust knows he will never be satisfied:

When, to the moment then, I say:

Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!

Then you can grasp me.http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScene IVtoVI.htm

In league with the devil, Faust now enjoys himself immensely and does some terrible things but his mind remains ever restless, striving to know and experience more. And paradoxically, it is this striving that saves him in the end because ‘Whoever strives,’ say the angels, ‘can be redeemed.’  Faust II, Line 11936

  1. Peter SchlemihlAdalbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihl. This children’s story written in 1814 adds a new twist: Peter Schlemihl sells the devil not his soul, but
    his shadow, in return for a bottomless wallet. The loss of his shadow makes Peter an outcast but when the devil offers to return the shadow in exchange for his soul, Peter is wise enough to resist him.
  1. The Devil and Homer Simpson (Treehouse of Horror IV).  OK, not literature as such but how could I not include Homer selling 250px-Glazed-Donuthis soul to the devil in exchange for a doughnut? Fortunately for Homer it turns out that his soul wasn’t his to sell in the first place, having given it away to Marge on their wedding day. Ahhhhhhhh.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – but then folk legend has always been packed with stories of simple people tricking the devil. And what unites Homer Simpson, Faust, Schlemiel and all those colourful literary characters who bargain with the devil is an urgent need they can find no other way of meeting. So when plotting my children’s version of the Faust story, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, the one question I had to answer was, what great need would drive 13 year-old Henry Fowst – and his 16th century counterpart, 12 year-old John Striven – to make a pact with a demon?

Well, I’ll give you a clue.

It isn’t a doughnut.

Well, there’s magic – and then there’s magic

Last week I wondered what would induce an ordinary, well-meaning 13 year-old boy to make a pact with a demon. Traditionally demons are evil and scary, and using magic to summon one to your aid is a dangerous step to take, right?

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst Cover for MATADOR

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, out 28 August 2015

Not necessarily, according to the Elizabethans. For them, magic wasn’t always a bad thing. Witches, curses and evil spells – yes, these were terrible and people feared their power.

But there was also a belief in a good kind of magic flowing through all creation, whose very existence – being a miracle brought about by God – was somehow magical. This magic was present in all nature – in stones, herbs, animal bones, the stars, geometrical shapes – and, with the help of various charms, you could unlock it and so discover the secrets of the universe.

SLIDE 13  John Dee with Edward Kelley skryingOr you could enlist the aid of one of the thousands of spirits who were also part of God’s creation. A number of natural philosophers – the precursors of scientists – saw nothing irrational in this.  The famous mathematician and astrologer, Dr John Dee – thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s benign  magician, Prospero, in The Tempest – created tables of ‘angelic codes’ and used a crystal ball, through which he believed the archangel Uriel spoke to him.  In short, he called up ‘good spirits’ to help him in his scientific enquiries.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Crystal ball for skrying. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

And there I had it.  If a great mathematician like Dr Dee could call on the aid of ‘good spirits’, then why shouldn’t my 12 year-old Elizabethan boy, John Striven, do the same?

It is unfortunate, for John, and for Henry 430 years later, that the spirit who arrives is…

Mephistopheles.SLIDE 14 Mephistopheles