Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish

 

This book, one of the launch titles for Greystones Press, has grown from Katherine Langrish’s blog, now eight years old, of the same name. The intriguing title of both blog and book is taken from an Irish fairy tale whose hero is tasked with riding over “seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea”. Each blog post is a well-researched essay, some of which have been extended into this enticing collection.

 

Katherine Langrish draws on her life-long enjoyment and appreciation of traditional tales, and her book combines wide reading and scholarship with personal insights and interpretations. In the stories she examines we’re a long way from the tamer kind of fairy who has a name and lives under a toadstool; in fact, as she points out, many of the best-known so-called fairy tales don’t feature fairies at all. Faeries rather than fairies – “the word somehow just looks more magical, too – more romantic, more grown-up, more literary” – are frequently seductive and treacherous, luring humans into the in-between world they inhabit. Themes of loss, grief and betrayal are threaded through traditional tales rawer and more brutal than the later versions written or retold for children.

  

Following a first section which looks at recurrent motifs such as lost kings and enchanted objects, the middle section examines individual tales, comparing various versions of stories passed from teller to teller and into writing. These include The King Who Had Twelve Sons (whose hero must negotiate the steel thistles) and The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry; with the latter, we see how Victorian reshapings added moral warnings to the more direct, plaintive appeal of the earlier ballad.

  

Katherine Langrish has written several well-reviewed children’s novels: her Troll trilogy, now reissued as West of the Moon, and Dark Angels. She shows us how she has used and shaped her many influences, for example the sorrowful White Lady of Dark Angels, who continues a tradition of such grieving, liminal figures. She also includes three of her own poems – another book in the making, perhaps?  

  

In her introduction, she writes: ‘The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain.” Her book ranges widely, from Canadian Mi’kmaq stories to Japanese kitsune, Shakespeare’s fools and Alan Garner’s owl plates, with, of course, the Celtic and Norse mythology which is woven through Langrish’s own fiction. She is a most engaging companion – informed, curious and perceptive - and I highly recommend her book to students of the genre as well as to anyone who enjoys good stories and good writing.

 

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