When I spotted* the there was a talk between Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman about fairy tales, it took me a good five minutes to digest the thought that I might actually get to see two of my favourite writers in the flesh (this only happened to me once before when I met the eminent Helen Dunmore).
I put the word out on Twitter to see if anyone wanted to go, and got immediate responses from fellow literary fanatics (there are definitely distinct advantages to being a Creative Writing graduate/working in publishing).
I have to say though, always be quick off the mark for these things, as when I went to book the tickets the next day or so, we had to have 3 seats in one part and 2 seats in another.
As previously mentioned, things weren’t going as smoothly as planned for other members of the party. Poor Ana, stuck in Milton Keynes, had to abandon her attempts to get into London after delays of up to two hours and cancelled trains. So it was down to four.
Sarah, Rachael and I travelled up together – sat in the quiet carriage and talking in hushed tones, but still entertaining a nearby passenger enough for him to seem to be tweeting our conversation. (Jealousy is an ugly mistress).
From Waterloo it was a brisk (cold and wet) walk over the river to Covent Garden. Not being a London native I was all but useless and poor Sarah had to keep yelling my name to get my attention as I strode off in the wrong direction more than once.
The talk was at the Cambridge Theatre – the usual home of Matilda. It’s a gorgeous little theatre on a corner, with lots of stairs going up and down and you’re never quite sure if you’ll end up on the same floor as you began on. The walls are strewn with framed scribbles and doodles and silly words – as if it were a school. Matilda goodies climb up the walls, and the stage is covered in words and books – it felt like stepping into the book-reading part of my brain.
Sarah and I were on the back row of the Dress Circle, whilst Rachael and Maddie (who is a London native and had joined us with the milling crowds outside the theatre) were up in the Upper Circle.
Very sadly, Philip Pullman had pulled out of the talk last minute because he was ill, and to replace him as “Philip Pullman impersonators” was Meg Rosoff (author of YA fiction such as How I Live Now). Thankfully, it was not serious and he is on the road to recovery.
Settled in, we were also honoured by the appearance of Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), who read out one of my favourite tales from the collection – The Three Snake Leaves. She had meant to be sat in the crowd with us, but had agreed two hours before to read a short story first! There’s something about having a story read to you (in a wonderful American drawl with plenty of snarky asides) that brings it to life.
The conversation began with a discussion around the dark satisfaction of the justice in Grimm’s tales – swift, brutal and strangely appealing (The Three Snake Leavesis a beautiful example of this, when the conniving princess is offed with her lover). This swiftness and lack of sympathy is not the only telling character of fairy tales, Gaiman pointed out – another is the remarkable absence of characterisation. There is no “getting into” a hero or heroine’s head, and the lack of psychological complexity is what makes these stories so timeless – as an oral tradition, each teller embellishes to their own degree. A fairy tale is the backbone and ribs of the story – not the meat. Meg Rosoff agreed with this – and noted that her favourite fairy tale is three paragraphs long, and features a girl who, on disobeying her parents and going into the woods, gets killed. Nice.
Gaiman also touched on the fact that the Grimms never collected fairy tales as children’s stories. It was rather their fascination and love of the Germanic language and traditions. That’s why, as children became the primary reader, stories were watered down – they became less scary, and evil mothers became evil stepmothers (eventually coming down to the soft, sweet storytelling of Disney).
Rosoff described the tales as blank slates that invite us to add all the emotion and psychological complexity they’re lacking – and notes that Tender Morsels is a good example of the fairy tales doing a full circle and going back to their ominous, dark roots. Gaiman also commented that it’s funny how heroes and heroines are never as heroic as we remember them – they are not comic book heroes who save the world, they are just people battling some monsters. They have desires – to get home, to marry the girl, or simply to eat – and this is what drives the story.
(Reminded of anything my fellow Creative Writing graduates – “every story must have a desire, and something getting in the way…”?)
It was at this point that Gaiman told the G.K Chesterton quote that became the best quote of the evening… “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” He referenced Hansel and Gretel – the hunger and the gingerbread house and then beating the witch – which provoked Rosoff into talking about how in the original story, the children are not lost, they are abandoned. Gaiman then talks about because of the oral nature of the stories, there is never an original.
It was then that they spoke of Gaiman’s American Gods. When asked why there was a distinct lack of idolatry and gods in fairy tales, Gaiman explained his theory – that fairy tales have evolved from their religious origins and become more tales than sacred story and mythology. Ethnographer Richard Dawson noted American versions of old English folktales had done away with the magical elements, and perhaps this is the evolution of the fairy tale. And it was this observation that inspired the concept of American Gods … ultimately; what happens to gods when they are forgotten?
And lastly, they spoke of being scared. It had been a theme throughout the evening, and it was now that Gaiman and Rosoff both emphatically agreed that children enjoy being scared (look at the original popularity of Grimm’s tales), but Disney and Political Correctness had sanitised these stories – though more so in the US and the UK (cue Gaiman telling us that when Coraline came out as a film, US reviewers were baffled that it seemed to be that he wanted to scare children). And Rosoff made the appropriate point: life is harsh, and unfair, and always ends in death. To protect children from this doesn’t rescue them from it, and you can’t protect them forever, so why not equip them for it.
To finish the evening, Neil Gaiman treated us to Click Clack the Rattlebag, his audio short story – in keeping with the scary theme.
We were told that Neil Gaiman would be signing his books afterwards, so Sarah and I sat (poor Sarah got stuck with waiting with me) and then queued down the stairs, and the queued some more. By the time we had reached signing-distance we were told that only book would be signed, so it was a choice between my battered and mauled copy of American Gods, or brand new 10th anniversary edition of Coraline (illustrated by the marvelous Chris Riddell). Half-ashamed to publicise the fact that I’ve nearly destroyed my American Gods (out of love, I hasten to add), it was the Coraline I placed in front of Neil Gaiman, who dutifully signed it. It now sits on my shelf, pride of place, until I get the courage to read it (in case I maul it to death through love).
I can’t express how much I enjoyed the evening. Good company and good conversation (though I wasn’t a participant). And a particularly delicious pear cider in the pub across the road for afters.
*See Tickets are a fantastic site for getting to know about gigs, events, plays and all sorts. There’s always something I want to go to on every newsletter