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Brewhaha Book Cafe

For Writers, Readers & Tea-drinkers

Month

July 2016

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This article first appeared as a guest post on Pages Unbound on 28 July 2016. Many thanks to Krysta and Briana for hosting the celebrating classic literature event. Be sure to visit their fantastic blog!

Before the wardrobe. Before the One Ring…

Some one-hundred-twenty-odd years after its first publication, The Princess and the Goblin was honoured with a place in Everyman’s Library of Children’s Classics. But I would suggest the fairytale, and the entirety of MacDonald’s fantasy works, belong in the canon of classics for all ages. And I believe I am in good company in suggesting so. C.S. Lewis praised MacDonald as a master in “the art of myth-making.” Tolkien was inspired by his predecessor’s “stories of power and beauty.” The Princess and the Goblin attests to all of the above: a fairytale in the truest, pre-Victorian sense that Tolkien subscribed to (which ironically has nothing to do with little winged people hiding in flower gardens), this tale is enchantingly beautiful and at the same time has the power to awaken desire in the reader… which was, after all, precisely what the author intended.

The Story

As you might guess, the central protagonist in the story is the eight-year-old princess Irene who lives in an unnamed but perfectly believable mountainous kingdom. The King has sent Irene to grow up in a country home under the astute care of his servants because of a lurking threat: namely, vindictive goblins. Irene must never venture out of the house past dark lest the cave-dwelling “cobs” take the chance to seize her and at last have revenge on the king’s people whom they condemn as trespassers on their land. When by happenstance one evening Irene and her nurse get caught out after dark and are rescued by a confident young miner called Curdie, Irene’s life takes a turn towards the fantastical.

Not long afterwards, she discovers in the attics of her house a breathtakingly beautiful queen who claims to be Irene’s great grandmother, come to live in the house to watch over the little girl. Irene is delighted with her discovery of the wise and gentle woman, but when she descends the attic stair to share the news with her nurse, the true conflict of the story emerges. For though the goblins’ mischief sets the scene for the action that follows, the real crisis for Irene is one of belief – belief of what she has experienced, even when others write off her belief as a childish game, trickery, or worst of all, lies.princess Irene

As the drama unfolds and the danger of goblin schemes grow, Irene must battle her own doubts about her grandmother as well as the doubts of others. Half-persuaded the whole experience was a dream, a lingering hope leads Irene to search out her grandmother once again, and when she succeeds, her fears are finally laid to rest. Now fully convinced of the truth of her experience, Irene is allowed to see her grandmother in all her splendid, magical beauty. The queen gives the princess a gift – a magic thread that will lead her out of danger whenever she follows it.

Certain at last of her grandmother’s existence and the power of her promise, Irene becomes a true princess, following her thread in a daring mission to save Curdie from the goblins. The tale does not end there, for the goblins still have their vendetta to serve, and Irene still must face the disbelief of those she loves. But suffice it to say, MacDonald is a self-professed believer in happy endings. And for those readers hungry for more, The Princess and Curdie continues the history yet further down the road.

But what does it all mean?

Aside from the remarkable tale itself, MacDonald’s style of storytelling is remarkable in the way it pulls the reader into the story, sometimes inviting him or her to guess what might happen next. But whilst he engages his readers as if they were sitting in the same room with him, the author never attempts to tell his audience what the tale means. Unlike so many writers for children of his day, MacDonald never lectures, never moralizes and never offers interpretation. And indeed, it would be a misstep to try and spell out the story’s meaning in this review – MacDonald expressly did not mean for one meaning to be found.

What MacDonald offers his readers of The Princess and the Goblin (along with his other fairytales) is not a lesson but an experience. It isn’t that he asks the reader to suspend thinking; quite the contrary, for MacDonald, Reason is intrinsic to the realm of Faerie. Also, he makes his audience not only think but rethink with his frequent use of paradox: the wisdom of youth seen in Irene, or the strength and beauty of old age that Irene’s great grandmother embodies. But while we readers may find ourselves rethinking what we once thought, MacDonald himself warned that “we spoil many a precious thing by intellectual greed,” and “The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended” (from MacDonald’s essay “The Fantastic Imagination”). Hence children are so much better at receiving fairytales than many adults, though MacDonald would argue it is adults who need them most.

 For my part, I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five. ~G. MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’

A fairytale, MacDonald believed, is less like an allegory and more like a sonata that “seizes you and sweeps you away”: it is written with rationally with rules, but it will stir up a different feeling in every listener.

The key then to not just appreciating but truly enjoying The Princess and the Goblin and other like tales is letting it work its magic on you; allowing it to transport you right where you sit into a waking dream in the Realm of Faerie. This story’s beauty lies in its power to awaken a perhaps forgotten childlike wonder in readers of any and every age. It certainly had such a stirring, heartstring-pulling, transporting effect on me. But you must read it for yourself to see where the music of MacDonald’s fairy world will take you.

If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it.

~George MacDonald

Book Review: Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Maia is just an ordinary London school girl…until she is orphaned and her only living relatives are discovered to be living in the deepest, darkest Amazon. Yet Maia faces her new life with optimism, willing her newfound cousins to become her best friends, and her new exotic surroundings to yield wonderful adventures.

But despite her positive approach, Maia is drastically disappointed when she meets her new family. Her aunt is a germophobe who prefers to eat canned beets rather than risk a fly on the local fresh fruits; her uncle is a scam artist whose greatest passion is his glass eye collection; and as for the much anticipated cousins… they are spoiled, selfish, disdainful and downright horrid towards Maia whom they see as no better than the native pests they are so eager to avoid.

But all is not lost. Thanks to a kind and loyal heart, Maia manages to find friendship in unexpected places….and with it, an adventure beyond any she could have dreamed up.

Journey to the River Sea is a quest not only for adventure, but for home. And we find, along with Maia, that sometimes the adventures we don’t look for but find ourselves in for the sake of friendship, are the very best kind.

Eva Ibbotson has a special knack for creating  adventure stories with a lot of heart, as meaningful as they are exiting. I found myself rooting for Maia – a lead role who is strong in herself but also deeply caring of others – as she tries to keep her chin up & stay resourceful when facing disappointments. The other characters, both the good and the nasty, are interesting and 3-dimensional, and the plot keeps readers guessing to the very end. I highly recommend picking up this book & taking the journey… to the river sea.

Genre: middle grade adventure

Recommended tea: vanilla Rooibus

Dragon Clouds-Strange Creatures

Yes, those are armadillos. Weird looking things, aren’t they? But super cute! So why are they on a Dragon Clouds post? Because look at them! They are cute little critters that have ARMOR! Imagine describing an armadillo to someone who has never seen one before. Well, it has a tiny pointy head with cone shaped ears, a big oval body with thick, plated skin like armor, and a little naked tail sticking out. Sounds like an odd fantasy creature, right? When I need inspiration for fantasy animals, I look at ‘ordinary’ animals. There are fascinating creatures in our world, many more suited to a fantasy kingdom. Have you ever seen a hummingbird close up, and heard the sound of its wings? Really looked at an ant hill and the incredible structure the little guys can build? Caterpillars turn into butterflies, spiders create beautiful webs, goats climb unscalable cliffs.  The animals in our world are incredible and strange and beautiful. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind us borrowing some of their traits to turn into fantasy creatures.

Wednesday Writers’ Cafe: that magic moment

Do you remember it? That moment you just knew you HAD TO WRITE?

I’ve always felt a little intimidated by those authors who claim they’ve been writing since they were old enough to hold a pen & set out on their pathway to a writing career in the early days of Primary School.

That wasn’t me. I knew I loved stories. I knew I loved playing make-believe with my older brother & sisters, putting into action all our far-fetched narratives barefooted in our back yard. That’s when I learned resourcefulness – that a plank in a tree and a rope ladder can transform into the Swiss Family Robinson’s tree house, and a rickety old barn serves brilliantly as the ruins of a haunted castle.

But did I know in those formative days that I wanted to write my own stories for a living? To be honest, I don’t think it even occurred to me that such a thing were possible… that real books were written by real people, and not by some special Guild of Story-Makers from a far away land. You may as well have asked me if I’d like to raise a herd of unicorns when I grew up (not a bad alternative). But the seeds were sewn.

It wasn’t until later (around 12 or 13), when a character popped into my head one day during a solitary forest jaunt, & I knew I had to write her into a book. Not just for my own amusement, but for the world!

That character has been living with me ever since, growing & changing with me over the years. But she & her story have come into much sharper focus, & I hope (really hope) she will be ready to spread her wings & greet the world very soon indeed. For with her, the seeds of story have grown into a forest, the landscape of my daily life. And I’m quite sure, at the ripe old age of 28, that writing is the very occupation I was designed for. Fame & fortune are no guarantee in this business, but the glory of belonging to that illustrious Guild of Story-Makers is all the incentive I need!

That’s my story. how about yours?

Do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to be a writer? Did you ‘always’ know? Or, like me, did you get there on a journey?

We’d love to hear a snippet of your story. Share below in the comments, or feel free to spill it all out in your own blog & link us in!

 

Stuck!

So I was trying to decide what to write about this week, but I keep coming back to the same thing.

I.

AM.

STUCK.

Horribly stuck. Have been for weeks. So irritating.

I am 20,000 words into my current story. Those 20,000 were easy and I really like what I wrote (which doesn’t often happen in the first draft). I even know what’s going to happen next. But for the last two weeks I haven’t moved past the last scene I wrote. I open up my word document, read the last thing I wrote…and stare at the computer screen. After a few minutes, I find my gaze sliding to my wall of books or opening up Netflix without having typed a single word.

Part of it is laziness. I admit that. It’s so much easier to watch a movie or read a book than work. And while the writing was easy, now it isn’t so I find myself taking the easy way. Please tell me I’m not the only one.

But a bigger part is I lost interest because I don’t like the scene I’m working on now. It sounded good in my head, and I still like the concept, but when I put it on paper, it fell way short of what I imagined. So I keep coming back to it, trying to figure out what’s wrong, what I’m missing. I made some changes, undid those changes, made some other changes, added some characters I have no idea what to do with, read it over and over.

Still. Stuck.

Of course, Mez told me what to do weeks ago. Just get past it and keep writing, it can be fixed later. Funny, I remember her telling me that before, and me telling it to her.

But I seem to be fixated.

I want it to be as good as I think it can be, not leave it as it is, with it nagging in the back of my head that it isn’t right.

Still, time to take her advice and force my way through the wall or I’m not going to get my draft done before our writing retreat.

And my options are…

  • Just skip to the next scene, leaving this one unfinished and fix it later
  • Write a quick summary of what is supposed to happen and flesh it out later
  • Make myself finish the scene, no matter how boring I find it and fix it later

Every single one makes me cringe, but I know I have to pick one if I’m ever going to finish it. And I really want to finish it. So I have got to get through this wall and get to the other side so I can keep moving.

tree-1444482_1280

So that’s where I am right now. Stuck as can be. And I won’t have time to unstick myself this week.

Frustrating.

So wish me luck on unsticking myself, and I wish luck to all of you out there with no time to write or stuck on a scene. Write on!

Book Review: A Monster Calls

a monster callas

Written by Patrick Ness

Inspired by Siobhan Dowd

Illustrated by Jim Kay

Conor has been having nightmares ever since his mom first became sick, nightmares about a terrible monster. So when a giant tree monster appears out his window, he isn’t scared, but disappointed; this isn’t the monster he’s been waiting for. The tree monster has come walking, for Conor called him, though Conor has no idea how or why. The monster says he will tell Conor three stories, and demand a fourth in return, a fourth that is Conor’s truth. If Conor doesn’t give it, he will be swallowed up alive.

This was a beautiful story how one boy deals with his mother’s progressing illness, his stiff grandmother, his absent father, and the pitying teachers and students. The monster and his stories reveal truths to Conor and to the readers, truths we may not like, but are still true. The illustrations are suitably scary and poignant, matching the story perfectly.

The book has been made into a movie coming out this winter, and I’m looking forward to it!

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Recommended Tea: Any Green Tea

 

Wednesday Writers’ Cafe: Untangling Knots

It isn’t quite Wednesday here in the US of A, but those of you across the ocean are well into it, so here is our Wednesday Writers’ Cafe!

Imagine you are just writing along, everything is going well, then BAM!! The words stop flowing quite so quickly as you realize you must make a decision on what’s next. And you find yourself staring at the screen or page, but seeing your story play out in your inner eye.

Ever thought how strange we look sometimes, staring off into space, seeing things no one else does? Oh well! Perk of being a writer, the world expects us to be strange!

Anyway, getting off topic. The question for today is (insert dramatic music)…

What do you do when you are untangling story knots?

I’m not talking about writer’s block. As in, physically, what do you do when you just need to think? We all come to a point where we have to work things out in our heads to proceed with the story. Often, this means lots of mental activity, little physical activity.

Do you stare at the screen, hands poised, as you try to work out why your characters are going to point G instead of point B? Do you pace as you try to decide how your protagonist is going to go 200 miles in an hour? Do you go for a walk? Lay on your back and stare at the ceiling, pretending it is actually a movie screen playing the same scene over and over with different variations until you find the right one?

Let us know in the comments below!

Is Originality Overrated?

Has this ever happened to you?

I’m 3/4 of the way through my book, having sacrificed incalculable time, sleep and emotional energy to this thing for the past year and then some. Then I walk into the bookshop for a quick browse in the Middle Grade section and… low and behold, what do I see? A debut author has just won an award for her new novel featuring a story with uncanny similarities to mine!

Bummer.

That was just one of a saga of events that has brought my story to a grinding halt, all because of this one. paralyzing. fear:

What if what I’m writing isn’t original?

If you’re a writer, you know this niggling doubt intimately. And it’s no wonder! We hear from every source that originality is what counts in publishing. “Don’t do that.. It’s already been done by Such-&-Such,” or “No one will ever write that sort of fantasy as well as this author, so you might as well not try.” And pretty soon, it can feel as though every idea has been covered, every angle explored and you’re like poor Truman in The Truman Show whose teacher dashes his hopes of becoming an explorer to smithereens when she tells him, “You’re too late. Everything’s already been discovered.

Yet we cling to hope… hope that there IS still uncharted territory in the Land of Story to be discovered!  Otherwise we may as well pack up our pens, laptops and writing manuals and call it day.

Well I’m here to affirm that hope. To fan the flame!

Dare to muse with me for a moment…

Maybe… just maybe…this originality thing is all a myth.

Maybe we’re going about it all wrong, trying to write our stories in a sanitary vacuum so as to preserve them from contamination by any element that might in any way resemble some other writer’s ideas.

Maybe “contamination” is exactly what we need…

But don’t take my word for it. Two of the great heroes of Faerie (and coincidentally two writers we’re over & over warned not draw from because we will only fall short) have in fact poo-pooed this notion of all-important originality. These Giants of Story are, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Here’s what they have to say:

First from Jack:

“Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” –C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (IV, 11)

Let’s test his theory, shall we? Think about the stories that have most touched you and changed you. What was it that impacted you so? Was it wonderful and wacky creatures you’d never before dreamed of? Or was it perhaps something else… something old… maybe even as old as Time, like a love story, or a beautiful friendship, or a character’s heroic sacrifice? In my case, it’s the latter. Sure, the old themes may be wrapped in new clothes, but it’s what’s at the heart that drives the story, not the wrapping. And we’ve all read stories that labour the wrapping to death, yet totally lack in content. Not ideal.

So take this lesson from Lewis to heart: Write about the thing you’re passionate about…the truth that drives you, that makes your heart beat. Originality will come as a byproduct, because let’s face it: every story, no matter how often it’s been told, is bound to carry the flavour of its storyteller. You, the storyteller, are unique; therefore your stories will be too!

Now let’s hear what Tolkien has to say on the matter. In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, the old master of myth describes stories as evolving from “the long alchemic processes of time.” The process is, Tolkien says, a bit like a stewing cauldron of soup… or “Cauldron of Story.”

“The Cauldron of Story has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”

Can’t you just picture it? All the myths, histories, legends and fairy tales ever told simmering together in a great cauldron? There is a bit of Arthurian legend, and there a chunk of Greek mythology, and, ooh! What’s that? I’m catching a whiff of Irish folktale.

The point is, nobody writes a story from scratch. We are all influenced. We all dip from the Cauldron of Story. BUT – and what a wonderful thought – that means you & I dip from the same pot all the great “original” authors have dipped from — The Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling… you name them!

The important question then, is not “Am I being original enough?

Instead ask,”What will I draw out of the Cauldron? Take the good advice of our fore-bearers – draw out the flavours you find most delicious… the ones that make your heart sing and write about those.

And who knows? You may find that without really even meaning to, you’ve added a new pinch of flavour all your own to the Soup!

Kids’ Classics Book Review: 101 Dalmations

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

by Dodie Smith

If you have any passing interest in top-notch adventure stories, rescue missions and, most importantly, dogs, One Hundred and One Dalmatians is a treat of a read. Daring, intelligent and fiercely loyal, Pongo and Misses set out on an adventure from London to the English countryside to rescue their stolen puppies from the vicious fur-loving villain, Cruella de Vil. Dogs great and small of Dogdom and even some of their human pets come to the aid of the heroic dalmatians; but will they reach their puppies in time before Cruella has them turned into spotted fur coats? And even if they do rescue their own pups, will they be able to put an end to Cruella’s evil antics for good?

This book will keep you on the edge of your seat and give you a new appreciation for our heroic four-legged friends as you join Pongo, Misses and a host of helpful dogs and cats on this unforgettable rescue mission. Even if you’ve already seen the film… READ IT! Or you’re missing out!

Genre: middle grade animal adventure

Recommended tea: Lady Grey

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