Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Theft of The Heart of The World, Part II: A Meeting in The Forest

[For Part I of this tale, see here]

Arbor Vulpa was giving serious thought to the idea of becoming annoyed.  Normally he prided himself on his ability to keep his emotions in check, a vital skill for any thief with ambitions beyond brief bursts of petty larceny and long spells in the Carcer, but his current situation was insistently tickling the ever-thinner skin of his patience.

He had been walking through the forest for more than an hour, his steps silent amid the rustle of leaves in the wind, the scurryings of small creatures in the dark and even - Arbor indulged a small and bitter laugh at the thought - the distant howling of a wolf.  And all this in a space which should have been filled not with trees and beasts and leaf-litter but with the solid furniture and heavy tapestries appropriate to the highest tower of the Palace of Days.

At this very moment, he should be making his way to the tower's lower levels, skipping lightly past the many wards, springing traps and picking locks with a devilish smile on his lips, always making his way closer towards the glittering prize at the tower's centre.  Instead, he was standing in the middle of an impossible forest, his feet quietly burying themselves in the mud of a track which should not be there.  And now there was this ...

(image from an original by thesuperaliceflickr)

It was a cottage, or rather the remnants of a cottage: its timber frame was cracked, its one small window was obscured by an old nest and the thatch of its roof divided its time between being moss-ridden and altogether absent.  It was a small monument to time's victory and hope's death, which added to Arbor's dislike of it.  More disquieting, the cottage sat at an angle upon the ground; propped up at its middle on what appeared to be the skeletal remains of two gigantic, not quite human, arms, which stretched out from below its doorway as if trying to grasp some fleeing guest.  Arbor had an urge to kick something.

"Not the cottage: you might wake it.  Or its mistresses, which would be worse".

Arbor was too experienced a thief to spin round.  Instead of tensing he let his body relax and instead of turning he towards the speaker he chose words of his own, selecting a voice that mixed honey with a hint of sharp spice.

"You know", he said, "I really wasn't expecting to meet anyone here".

And now he turned, sundial slow, to see who had joined him in the forest.  It was a man: slim rather than thin and somehow long rather than tall.  His tunic, cloak and trousers were all dark, just as were Arbor's clothes, lending the pair of them the air of talking shadows.  The stranger's dark hair was shot through with white and his eyes were wolf's-hide grey.  There was something in the way he held himself that suggested he would not be easy to fight or to run from and he loped past Arbor towards the ruined cottage with confident ease.

"I wonder why she brought it here?" the stranger began, "No choice, perhaps, or maybe ... ".  The thought drifted off with the breeze and the stranger cupped his chin and examined the two long arms.  "Monkey, I should say, though I've never known what type".

Arbor couldn't help himself.  "Large?" he offered.

The stranger offered him a small smile.  "That I'll grant you.  It hardly matters in any event".  He moved back towards Arbor.  "What's important here is you".  There was another smile, this one not altogether kind.  He placed a firm hand on Arbor's shoulder and another on his arm, guiding him a little from the cottage, towards a little, open fire which Arbor was sure had not been there a moment before.

"Let's sit", the stranger said.

Arbor hesitated; since entering the Tower of the Heart the balance of his life had been tilted much more heavily against him than he was used to, and now he sought to add at least one consoling weight to his own side of the scales.

"I realise it's awfully impolite to ask", he began, "but I did wonder whether you might perhaps be planning to kill me".

The stranger shook his head.  "Oh no, I'm planning to help you", he said.  Arbor relaxed a little.  The stranger poked at the fire, then turned his face back towards the thief,  "Let's leave the killing you to others shall we?"


[UPDATE: Part III of this tale can now be found here]

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Woman Who Broke The World's Heart

Some say the planets are alive. A few say that our world is simply asleep, that in its dreams it dances slowly around our sun, moving in time with a tune we cannot hear. Fewer still claim that our world has a heart: a flawless gem, monstrous in size, which glows with a light stolen from the stars in a time before memory. A very few indeed – among them a man of uncertain age, more long than tall, and a silver-haired mistress of thieves – say that in a time at the edge of imagining, a splinter of the world’s heart was stolen.

They say this splinter was stolen from the world by a girl no taller than the top of her head and no older than her name, who wandered off from her parents one long-ago day, following the meandering path of a bird or butterfly or beetle. Whatever the creature was, it travelled high and travelled deep and they say the girl followed its path so long that many days passed and many nights passed and many yellow summers were ground into brown autumns and white winters by the millstone of time.


They say that at long last the girl, now a young woman, found herself at the foot of a high mountain in a time of great storms and that, spying a crack in the mountainside, she slipped from the wet grass into the dry earth, where she found a tunnel lit by soft-glowing moss and sounding to the quiet laughter of a shallow-bedded brook.

They say the young woman walked beside the brook, following as it delved deep into the mountainside, through measureless caverns, past walls streaked with gold and columns studded with gems, until she came at last to a vast, dark sea, where she stepped into the waters and began to swim.

They say she swam onward into darkness without a thought and never tiring until at last she came to an island in the very middle of our world, a place of dark and of emptiness, with no paths to follow and no sign as to the way home. And there, they say, she began to weep.

She wept so long the sea itself was drowned and the cavern that roofed it rings still with the sound of her sobbing. And then she was silent.

How many steps time danced during that long, dark silence no-one knows but, for all the while it lasted and for all the years that the girl had followed the bird or butterfly or beetle and that the young woman had walked and swam and wept in the dark, each step of her journey had been watched by our world. Now the world is an old, slow creature, its body bound by the ropes of the stars, its mind quieted by the music of time, but within its old, slow mind, something was stirred by this frail little thing in the darkness and at this stirring, the light of a kind of pity was kindled.

And so, at first in a mere gleam but then in a great refulgence, the little island upon which the young woman had sat and wept was illuminated. And so she saw that she was a young woman no more: her dark hair was white and her strong limbs were thin and the skin that had once wrapped her body so tight now hung from her in folds and she would have wept again but all her weeping was done. And so absolute was the despair of this tiny being nestled inside it that the great beast that is our world felt a shard of its heart break and fall from its place high in the cavern’s roof onto the island below. And, in that moment, the light of pity was doused and all was returned to darkness and the echoes of the woman’s old weeping.

And then? Some say the woman passed away with the fading of the light. A few say she quietly stepped into the vast, dark sea where she slipped from this world into memory. Fewer still say she lives on, staring out into the endless dark and listening to the sound of tears she can no longer shed. And a very few indeed say that, after the world had danced a hundred times about the sun, someone who was both a girl and a young woman and an aged dame walked out of a crack in a mountainside, carrying with her a fragment of the Heart of the World.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

It's Quiet ... Too Quiet

Thanks to the unique way Otherwhile Tales is funded (that is, by my snatching a bit of time away from 'proper' writing work), things have been a bit haphazard on the publication front.  With the site entering its second month of life, this seemed like a good time to get things into a bit more shape.  So, the plan is to try and put something new - a myth, a tale, a close-up or bit of background on some particular aspect of Otherwhile I'm planning to make use of later - up here once a week, probably on a Wednesday morning, starting tomorrow.   There'll be some more of Lemnick of Carysfort's researches (he's the one responsible for the Brief Survey of Otherwhile), perhaps something about the Crowpeople: figures of legend rumoured to live in the hills to the north of the country.  Then there's the history of Mistress Cats, trainer of thieves in distant Afar.  And of course there's the continuation of Arbor Vulpa's story - it feels terribly unfair to have left him in mid-theft, especially lost in a mysterious forest he really wasn't expecting to find in the upper rooms of a palace tower.  And then, well, there is a lot of Otherwhile to explore, not to mention general soundings off about fantasy and fairytale and more Otherwhile-ish stories along the lines of The Dwarf.  I hope that sounds interesting.  If it does, I'll see you back here tomorrow morning with the tale of The Woman Who Broke The World's Heart - I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Theft of The Heart of The World, Part I

[This story is rather different in style to some of the others that have appeared here, less folkloric and more old-fashioned fantasy tale.  It concerns Arbor Vulpa (whom you may remember from A Brief Survey of Otherwhile), a notorious thief and future king.]

Arbor Vulpa braced his back against the bricks behind him, his legs against the stones opposite and looked down. In the dark streets below, torches moved hither and thither as their bearers hurried about their business, like fireflies skittering above an inky pond. As far as Arbor could tell, not one of them even considered looking up.

“The trouble with you people”, he thought to himself, “is you never raise your sights. It shows a worrying lack of ambition”. He was, truth be told, a little drunk. He needed to be: he was about to carry out the greatest theft in the world.

Arbor shook his head, then turned his gaze towards the roof of The Palace of Days. With a grunt he began to ease himself upwards once more. Fifteen minutes later he was resting his head on the parapet and breathing hard, while the chilly fingers of the wind massaged his sweat-soaked back. Worryingly, the climb had been the easy part. The next stage ... Arbor felt his thoughts sliding away from him like hound-chased sheep. He took a firm grip on the wall he was resting against and raised himself to standing. The cure for his problems was action. He turned towards the lonely turret in front of him, The Tower of The Heart.

“The door or the climb?” Arbor asked himself. The theft had been long and carefully planned but it was always important to leave some elements to discretion. Arbor liked to give himself room to flex under the weight of chance, he also liked to give himself room for art. Just as he was about to allow himself a self-indulgent smile at the thought, an icy gust prodded viciously at him. The decision was made. A moment later, the little door’s lock was picked and the door itself was swinging to behind the thief.

The dark staircase on which he crouched ran, Arbor knew, directly from the roof of the tower to the Palace’s main guard room below, giving no direct access to the rooms within the tower itself. This, Arbor felt, showed a tragic lack of trust on the part of the designer. He would not let it dishearten him, however. Instead he padded up the stairs towards the roof.

It did not take him long to break out. The red powder that had cost him so much ate its way through the wooden rafters in just a few minutes, just as the fat-faced robber of a merchant had claimed it would. After the powder’s work was done, it was easy for Arbor to remove the tiles above and pull himself up and out into the cold night air. Without pausing he moved a little higher, towards the roof’s centre and applied the same process in reverse, allowing the starlight to fall for the first time into the much-legended inner rooms of the Tower of the Heart. It was, he felt, a considerable improvement on the building’s original design.

His charming new skylight before him, Arbor reached into his belt pouch, pulling out a flint and one of the dried wisps of candle blossom he had helped himself to while the fat-faced merchant was busy overcharging him for the red powder. Soon a spark was struck and the blossom was descending slowly into the dark below, a tiny star falling to earth, its glow illuminating the room about it. Satisfied, Arbor swung his slim legs into the hole he had made, letting them dangle in the void for a moment. This, he knew was the point of no return. The prize he was seeking was very rich; all he could be certain of was that the wards around it would be strong and subtle and perhaps even surprising. Generally strength, subtlety and surprise were gifts he preferred to give rather than receive.

He whispered a brief “Ah well” to the night and, in the same moment, thrust himself down into the darkened room. He landed in a crouch, his feet, which were braced for hard stone, striking something altogether more yielding, his right hand touching not rock but ... ... could it be grass? Somewhere – somehow inside the room but far more distant than the dimensions of the tower should have allowed – an owl called. Arbor stood up with the careful grace of a stalking cat and took in the dim scene around him.

“A forest”, he thought, “Well, at the very worst this is going to make for a most interesting death”.

He padded on into the trees.

[UPDATE: Part II of this tale can now be found here]

Thursday, 7 March 2013

How the Planets Were Tamed

The following has been reconstructed from fragments of the Pendlewilde scrolls, held in the collection of Jephsomewhat Quincescuttle.  I am grateful to several lay members of the Scriptorial Order at Farla for their assistance in restoring this early version of what is one of Otherwhile's oldest legends.

Long ago, when Time herself was young and loved to dance, the dark fields of Night extended to forever and beyond and in Night's fields lived the Stars.  Small and swift, they moved among the black stems of Night's crop, joining in Time's waltz.  And as they moved, they cast their light against the dark, feeding the soil they trod.  And so many were they that wherever they danced Night's wide, dark fields were filled with light and Night's tall, black crops grew strong.  And so the dance progressed.

And then, after an age and an age and an age had passed, strange Beasts arrived in the fields of Night.  Vast they were beyond imagining, each step of their great, grey limbs enough to set the dark sky trembling, each belch from their long, deep throats enough to set the wind to whirl and to scatter Night's crops.  Their wide and rocky frames clattered and rattled and creaked, their great mouths moaned and groaned and roared.  Their eyes were as big as oceans, their bodies were as broad as continents and their bellies were filled with hunger.

Where the creatures came from none knew.  All agreed that they had travelled far, from beyond the realm of Night, from beyond even the lands of Time.  Slow and steady the beasts moved, wide and far they ranged, driven ever onward by their hunger.  They snapped at the sky but their craving was not sated, they tore Night's crops from the ground but could not end the emptiness within.

And then they spied the light.

And then they saw the Stars.

And then they knew how to fill their vast bellies.

Slow as they were, the Beasts were too large to be evaded.  With their enormous jaws they tore wide stretches of the Star-crowded fields from the land and plunged great swathes of Night's realm into darkness.  They feasted long and feasted well and yet their hunger saw no end.  Thus, by the thousand and the thousand upon thousand, the Stars perished and so awful was their passing that Night wept and Time ceased to dance.  And now the Stars knew great fear.

Great ages passed and the Stars fled far among Night's fields but always the Beasts pursued them and scattered them and Night's realm grew ever darker.  Yet all was not lost, for while Night wept, Time had set herself to work, gathering up Night's scattered crop and setting her slim fingers to weaving its thick, dark stalks.  And so Time made strong, dark ropes and gave them to the Stars.

And now the Stars arrayed themselves across Night's fields and awaited the coming of the Beasts.  And when the Beasts came upon them the Stars girdled the wide, grey necks and bound the vast, grey limbs with Time's dark ropes and though the Beasts thrashed and bellowed they could not move.

And now Time spoke to the Stars and instructed them and the Stars drew off the hot, bright blood that coursed through the Beasts' rocky veins and pulsed from their crystalline hearts.  And the stars placed the blood in a great bowl and set it in the middle of Night's realm, where it cast light and heat upon Night's crop. And so the crops were fed and the Beasts were calmed and the Sun was born.  And now the Stars drew tight the dark ropes around the Beasts' bodies and set them on long reins.  And now Time began to tap her feet to begin her dance anew and, at the sound, the Stars cracked whips and set the Beasts to circle round the Sun.  And so the Planets were born.  And so ends the tale of their taming.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A Fairytale Relationship?: Disney/Pixar and the Fairytale Family

Margaret Thatcher famously said in an interview with Woman's Own that there was no such thing as society, insisting there were only "[i]ndividual men and women and ... families".  Perrault and the Grimms and all those who have followed the breadcrumb trail they left behind, would agree with the quondam Prime Minister about that: in the world of fairytale, big government has built no metalled paths through the forest, provided no police to track down granny-eating wolves, and created no building regulations to outlaw the erection of gingerbread houses.  The world outside our heroes' and heroines' doors is an Objectivist dreamworld in which there is no-one to stand in the way of the strong ... apart of course from all those wolves, forests, dwarfs, ogres, giants, dogs with eyes the size of cartwheels, witches, magicians and the like, not to mention all the problems caused by the absence of roads and police and the fact that it's difficult to rule the world with dignity when a spicy cake-based wall has just collapsed on you.

But the world inside our heroes' and heroines' doors is worse.  Fairytale parents won't just give you a clip round the ear for selling the cow for a bunch of magic beans, they'll send you to slave among the cinders, they'll gamble you away, they'll abandon you in the forest, they'll trade you to the local witch.  Fathers are either drunks, gamblers or slaves to their second wives, mothers are usually dead, step-mothers are ... well we all know how much fairytales love stepmothers. No, if you want to find a good parent in fairyland, you need to look for the nearest graveyard;1 the fairytale world is littered with orphans and - looking at the alternatives - those orphans should be thankful for it.

From the point of view of the stories themselves, ensuring that the central character's parents are absent or unsympathetic has a lot of advantages: it gets a lot of backstory out of the way quickly (like Holden Caulfield, fairytale characters rarely want us to know "all that David Copperfield kind of crap") and lets us know exactly where our sympathies should lie (because who wouldn't feel for an orphan/bullied stepchild/victim of a braggart father/&c).  Fairy stories - at least in their original form - are short and punchy, the last thing they want you to do is to start feeling for someone other than Cinders or Snow or that plucky young Seventh Son of a Seventh Son2.  It's a lesson well learned by children's authors from Roald Dahl to Lloyd Alexander to Frances Hardinge and has seen fantasy authors of all stripes send a legion of orphans out on their quests.  Its a tool that works and works well.

And this is something I was thinking about recently after watching two Disney/Pixar animations, Brave and Tangled.   Both films were exec'd by John Lasseter, both feature a strong heroine struggling to deal with a mother figure, both were made by what is now essentially the same company within the space of a couple of years. Tangled I thought was fabulous - bringing the story of Rapunzel up-to-date without ever losing sight of the fairytale's origins - Brave, on the other hand, a conscious attempt to create a new fairytale, was ... well, I really didn't like it at all.   Given all the similarities, I wanted to know why my reaction to each was so different.  And I think I found the answer in the different ways the two films approach that central, mother-daughter relationship.

*** Have a care!  Spoilers lie directly ahead***

Tangled is the story of the Princess Rapunzel, kidnapped from her crib and locked away in a high tower by the wicked Mother Gothel, who's intent on using the magic power of Rapunzel's hair to keep herself eternally young.  With the aid of a handsome rogue, a bloodhound of a horse and a pet chameleon, she will escape the tower, find true love and be reunited with her true parents, the King and Queen.

Brave is the story of Merida3, a young, tomboyish Scottish princess.  She is granted one wish and - eager to follow her own path and not the role of traditional princess-hood her mother has chosen for - she uses it to change her mother.  Unfortunately, rather than changing her mother's mind about the princess's path, the wish changes her mother's body into that of a bear.  What's worse, unless the princess can rectify matters within two days, her mother will become a bear - in both body and mind - forever.  You remember you did something really terrible as a child, something which was so awful your mum didn't get angry, she just looked at you with eyes that held more hurt than you knew could exist until that moment?  Well Brave is the film of that moment.

And here lies the problem: Tangled is a fairy story - one with too many highly forgettable songs, admittedly, but definitely a fairy story and one told with panache and some good gags too; Brave is a trip to the psychiatrist's couch.  And the main cause of this difference is the way the two films deal with the family.  In Tangled, mum and dad are out of the way and Rapunzel's surrogate parent, Mother Gothel, is thoroughly hateful.  We know from the very beginning who we're going to root for and why and we all feel very glad when (if this is a spoiler, you really haven't read enough fairy stories) Mother Gothel comes to a sticky end.  In Brave on the other hand, we're never quite sure whose side we should be on - Merida's or her mother's.  The Scottish queen may be a bit demanding at times but there's no way we feel she should be turned into a bear - particularly when she's played by the stalwart Emma Thompson.  On the other hand, making the young Merida responsible for something so hideous as her mother's transformation from royal to ravening beast feels unnecessarily cruel on the part of the writers.  Overall, with Brave one can't help but feel that the production team has come at the story from the point of view of the adult, not the child.  The final moral - hey, we all need to compromise at times if we're going to get along - rings with the dull and patronising tones of the closing segments of a Brady Bunch episode, or the ghastly "Hey kids ..." endings of a He-Man cartoon.4 and that really doesn't seem right at all.

And what, if anything, does all this blether have to do with Otherwhile and the story I'm currently planning to tell in it?  Well, not much, beyond helping a little to flesh out the kind of world Otherwhile is - a world where parents are kept at a distance, as parents sometimes need to be.  It's hard to go on a lonely adventure with dad walking by your side and there's no need to be brave when mum's all set to tuck you in.  The sixth son of a seventh son will have lost his mother and father (possibly in an unfortunate, porridge-related incident) many years before and, as for the heroine, her folks will be kept away from the story for reasons that will have to wait a while to become clear - sometimes a spoiler warning just isn't enough.

1. A particularly good example of this is Cinderella's mother who, in some versions of the story, provides guidance to her daughter from beyond the grave, as noted by Lissa Sloan here
2. Of course, there are exceptions, one of the most notable being Beauty and The Beast, which directs our sympathies not only to Beauty's father, heartbroken at the stupidity that has robbed him of a daughter, but also the Beast himself. But then again, Beauty and The Beast is far from a typical fairy story, being descended from Apuleius's Cupid and Psyche, written in the Second Century C.E.  For more, see here.
3. A Spanish name, derived from Latin, and not in any way Scottish, which is rather a worrying sign as to the care put into the script.
4. Incidentally, similar problems pop up through much of the Pixar oeuvre.  In Wall-E and Up we have orphaned children (admittedly, Up's Carl Fredricksen must have lost his parents quite a while ago, but the loss of his wife has left him emotionally orphaned and childish in an even more profound way than the loss of a parent) and we focus on them with laser-like intensity.  In the, for me, more problematic films like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo we spend significant parts of the movie (in the case of The Incredibles, all of it), looking at things from the hurt and resentful point of view of an adult.  The result is, again for me, a lack of charm and a tendency to on-the-nose writing (and in the case of The Incredibles a distinctly Randian flavour to the whole movie).