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Books Drawn From Myth and Fairy Tale

Alan Lee, illustrator of such classics as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, talks to Five Books about his favourite stories drawn from myth and fairy tale, what they mean to him, and how important it is for young readers today to experience these ancient stories.

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    1

    The God Beneath The Sea
    by Edward Blishen

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    2

    Lavondyss
    by Robert Holdstock

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    3

    Burning Your Boats
    by Angela Carter

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    4

    The Owl Service
    by Alan Garner

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    5

    The Lord of the Rings
    by J R R Tolkien

Alan Lee

Alan Lee is an artist and a conceptual designer for film. He has been illustrating the works of JRR Tolkien since 1992, starting with The Lord of the Rings centenary edition. It was this artwork that prompted director Peter Jackson to invite Lee to work on the films, for which he later won an Oscar. Lee won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal in 1993 for his haunting illustrations in Black Ships Before Troy, the story of The Iliad told by Rosemary Sutcliff. Frances Lincoln Children's Books will publish a new edition of the book this June to celebrate 60 years of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

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Alan Lee

Alan Lee is an artist and a conceptual designer for film. He has been illustrating the works of JRR Tolkien since 1992, starting with The Lord of the Rings centenary edition. It was this artwork that prompted director Peter Jackson to invite Lee to work on the films, for which he later won an Oscar. Lee won the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal in 1993 for his haunting illustrations in Black Ships Before Troy, the story of The Iliad told by Rosemary Sutcliff. Frances Lincoln Children's Books will publish a new edition of the book this June to celebrate 60 years of the Kate Greenaway Medal.

Save for later
 

Before we get lost in the mists of myth and fairy tale, tell us about Beren and Lúthien, a book distilled by Christopher Tolkien from his father’s manuscripts and published in June this year, with illustrations by you. It is set 6,500 years before The Lord of the Rings and the love story is mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.

Yes, and the love story of Aragorn and Arwen is an extension of it. Beren and Lúthien is based on Tolkien’s own experience. It was inspired by seeing his own wife, Edith, dancing in a wood, under the moonlight, amongst hemlock flowers. And this created an image in his mind that he kept on reworking throughout his life. But that it the central image. When she died he had the name Lúthien inscribed on her gravestone. When Tolkien died, his children inscribed the name Beren on his.

Our theme for this interview is books drawn from mythology and fairy tale. Tolkien referred to his own work as ‘mythopeia’–which is when an author creates an artificial mythology in his or her prose or fiction. Or integrates traditional mythology into their fiction. What is interesting about The God Beneath the Sea is that its authors (Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen) didn’t want to create their own mythology, but re-tell the myths they had read as children. They read the Victorian re-tellings and found them too placid. They wanted to offer the younger reader something that had more of the power that the stories must have contained for the Greeks–a punchier version.

What I find extraordinary about this is that I can’t actually tell that it’s a children’s book. Nor is it a straight blow-by-blow retelling. It’s poetic. Such a wonderful, joyous use of language. It’s so inspiring. And that’s what I really take from it. I read a lot of books about mythology–there are endless books that recount–but what these books have in common is that they are bringing myth to life, reviving them, receiving myth in the same inspired way that people have done for thousands of years. The beauty of the ideas.

In that sense it is a book for all ages, for the young reader who discovers it, there is all life here: sex, death, violence.

The illustrations, by Charles Keeping, appeal to me. They have an abstract quality, which doesn’t always work with illustration. He does with his lines what the authors do with their words. I try not to impose myself when I’m illustrating. I try not to impose myself between the author and the reader. I try to complement the storytelling. And The God Beneath The Sea is a beautiful example of text and picture working together.

“If you want intelligent children read them fairy tales”

I discovered this book when I’d just left art school. I’ve been reading mythology all my life from early childhood–from as soon as I discovered there was such a thing. It seemed to open-up this wonderful world of imagination where anything is possible.
Myths have a lot in common with fairy tales–fairy tales are myths further down the line. These stories appeal to parts of our own experience, but put in this strange context, we can get a larger picture of ourselves.

Have you come across the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari? He is a scientist and Sapiens is a history of mankind. One of the things he argues is that storytelling is vital to the human experience which allows us to co-operate in vast numbers. The stories we tell ourselves: money, religion, even the idea of a nationality, bond us. And when we don’t agree to share a story, or have two very different stories, things can get very bad. So, perhaps this is why these ancient stories appeal so much to us–we are programmed to respond to stories.

I have an idea that isn’t based on any kind of scientific knowledge–it’s more an intuition really–that stories develop the brain. Whether stories in book form or simply overhearing your mother chatting, “this happened, then this happened”, I think this is actually building the brain physically. The richer the story experience is for children the richer their brains will be. I think Albert Einstein said, “if you want intelligent children read them fairy tales, if you want more intelligent children read them more fairy tales.”

Harari said that after WW2 the countries of Europe had to learn new stories about each other in order to achieve peace. And this is an example of how stories can be incredibly powerful. Which sort of leads us to your second book, Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock.

This book is the second in the series. The first is Mythago Wood. It is set just after WW2. So, it’s at a time when there are still untended and unexploited areas of the countryside. And there is this researcher who believes that by going into the woods and wearing a strange contraption that monitors his brainwaves, he can get in touch with beings, that are drawn partly from his own subconscious and partly from the wood itself. These beings appear almost as ghosts. The wood expands. Although the area is quite small, once you go into it, you can get lost in its labyrinth.

Lavondyss takes us further. It is a journey to the ancient roots of lots of familiar myths. Holdstock has this wonderful ability to imagine how those societies existed just after the ice age and how their rituals gave birth to these stories. Of course, stories change over time, we are continually reinventing them.

I notice that you did these illustrations.

Yes, I did these little drawings. Robert Holdstock was very attached to them so I gave him the originals. He sadly died a few years ago. I haven’t read these books for a long time but I’m getting excited about them again.

Tell us about your next book, Burning Your Boats (1995) by Angela Carter.

It’s a collection of her short stories. Reading Angela Carter for the first time was a revelation to me. I’d never read anything like that–just spellbinding use of language. Like all the other books I’ve selected it brings the most beautiful pictures to mind. As an illustrator I feel I crave this–other people’s ideas. With just a few words they can conjure whole worlds. So, it’s very inspiring for me to read work like this. I wouldn’t necessarily illustrate these but am in awe of her skillful use of language.

Again, as with myth and finding new resonances in the retelling, Carter gives us new insights into our familiar fairy tales.

Now, tell us about your fourth book.

My fourth choice is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. One of the first jobs I was given as an illustrator was designing the cover of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, then Moon of Gomrath, then Elidor… so I don’t know why I’ve particularly chosen The Owl Service—but it did stick with me. It’s different to the others in that it deals with adolescent crisis. This is a coming-of-age story. It is based on a story I knew very well from reading The Mabinogion, another story I went on to illustrate.

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It is the story of a woman made of flowers–of oak broom and meadowsweet. She is created as a wife for a young man who is not allowed to have a human wife–because of a curse. And they are happy for a while until she falls for someone else. She and her lover conspire to kill her husband, who had told her he could only be killed in a particular and rather elaborate way. She tricks him into telling the secret, with unexpected consequences.

“When I go out into the woods, or by the river, I get a sense of hidden forces or beings in the landscape. ”

That is the basis of the myth. You get the sense of the strange rituals–especially in Garner’s books–a sense that the stories have filtered down through the ages. In The Owl Service this idea is taken even further–in that these myths are actually manipulating the modern characters in the story. It’s just great stuff. All those Mabinogion stories are full of strange magic and poetry.

What is it in your life that makes these books stand out for you?

I think there is a connection with the work I do. Drawing and drawing from myth. I’m not exactly sure why I chose to immerse myself in myth. Obviously because I’ve been reading them since I was five or six years old. These stories are so bound up with the landscape. So when I go out into the woods, or by the river, I get a sense of hidden forces or beings in the landscape. So even if I’m painting a landscape that is just there, I feel I’m investing it with, or conjuring up, some life within that landscape. This is particularly true where I’m living at the moment in Dartmoor, which is such an ancient landscape. A simple walk can cover thousands of years of history. Tin mines from 1300, a village that was deserted in the 1400s, stones circles that are 3,000 years old–it’s all there living in the landscape.

Shall we move on to your last book?

My final choice must be The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 17. I loved it because I’d read a lot of Scandinavian mythology and suddenly I found this book which had all those stories incorporated into this very beautifully told and engaging narrative. It drew me in completely. I was living in Middle Earth for quite some time–seeing elves everywhere! It’s not just a novel that you enjoy while you are reading it–it stays with you. I think because he had created an entire world–this allows the readers to do the same. It is an alternative world and mythological system that is totally coherent. It’s a fantastic gift that he has given us.

Your illustrations have played a powerful role in bringing this book to life for us.

Because I had been so immersed in the Scandinavian stories and perhaps because I have a similar response to landscape and place. And a slightly melancholic approach to landscape–because it does feel as if we are on the point of losing our forests, our pristine wilderness.

I tend not to go for the dramatic moments. Most of the time I’m trying to create the atmosphere in which those moments occur. Or the build-up. Because I know that when the author is really communicating directly with the reader, in those moments of heightened drama, I should stay out of the way! So, I try to give some sense of the outside world to colour the atmosphere and that enriches the readers experience of the book. I avoid competing with the author.

“I was living in Middle Earth for quite some time–seeing elves everywhere! ”

Tolkien didn’t set out to write novels, he set out to create a world. He wrote The Hobbit almost by accident–because he was telling the stories to his children, you see. After that his publishers wanted a follow up to The Hobbit, so he said “well, I’ve got this thing I’ve been working on”, which was the manuscript of The Simarillion. They balked at that and asked if he had anything else with more Hobbits in it. So, he set himself to the task of writing a sequel which grew and grew and grew.

There is an importance to these ancient stories–myths and fairy tales are still with us for a reason. It is no accident that we still tell them, play with them and enjoy them.

Like a pebble in a river that is continually rounded into a perfect shape. Each time these stories are handed down they are remoulded for us. Myth is a history of the imagination.

I love stories that offer choice for interpretation and myths do exactly this. For children they are so valuable because the fecundity of the stories bleeds into their own lives. I can think of dreams I’ve had as an adult that were based on myths I read as a child.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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