Leanne Barrett: The Fairy Tale in Australia Seminar 12 April 2017

Friday 14 April 2017

The Fairy Tale in Australia Seminar 12 April 2017

In March an event popped up on my Facebook feed, The Fairy Tale in Australia seminar. As an emerging writer I thought that I’d take a closer look and see if this might be something that I would consider attending.

Fairy tale books from my childhood
While deciding to register for the seminar I took a closer look at the organising group, the Australian Fairy Tale Society (AFTS). I was intrigued to read that one of their goals is “Collecting original Australian fairy tales…” I wondered what they considered an Australian fairy tale as most of the people who live in Australia have come from another country (at some point in time) and bring their culture’s stories with them.  

For me my earliest memories of reading are of my mother’s fairy tale books, listening to the little golden book & records, and reading fairy tale books that were birthday gifts. So I began to think that this seminar being held on my birthday might be a ‘sign’.

This brings me forward to my discovery of adult fairy tale writing. Eight years ago when I rediscovered reading for pleasure I began to read Australian female fantasy writers. The first was Kate Forsyth’s series The Witches of Eileanan and from there I began to gobble up other writers like Juliet Marrilier and her series Sevenwaters. I loved both writers’ story telling style so when Kate released her books The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens I fell in love with adult fairy tales. Hence I was interested in finding out more about this genre.

Dorothea Wojner
On Wednesday, my birthday, an enthusiastic group of women gathered to explore Fairy Tales. Jo Henwood from the AFTS had organised a wonderful line up of speakers. 

First we heard from Dorothea Wojner, Canberra Jung Society, who gave a Jungian perspective on fairy tales. Wojner explained that fairy tales communicate ideas and images that people have culturally in common with each other. That the fairy tales we tend to like often connect with us in some way. That fairy tales contain;
  • Heroic struggles
  • Gaining of wisdom
  • Reoccurring symbols and motifs from literature, painting and mythology
  • Dark forces
  • No time or specific location
  • Actions rather than feelings and reactions
  • Numbering patterns
  • Tasks to complete
  • Successes and failures
  • Knots and sudden changes
  • Turning points and resolutions
  • One dimensional and depthless characters and environments

We looked at guidelines for how to interpret fairy tales and worked with the Grimm story The shoes that were danced to pieces. This story reminded me of a book I still own that I know as The Twelve dancing Princesses by Janet Lunn and Laszlo Gal. While was mostly the same story; numbers patterns, tasks, knots, turning points there were differences too, in my story the youngest princess marries the man not the eldest one.

Part of the enjoyment of fairy tales is experiencing someone tell the story. Jo Henwood, NSW Storytelling Guild, gave an oral example of an Australian fairy tale that she has written. Henwood gave us a dramatic telling of her story Harry and Grace (Hansel & Gretel). It was captivating.

Jo Henwood
In summary Harry and Grace were left in the woods by their father, a trapper, because there was a drought and not enough food to feed the family. Harry and Grace were shown by an aboriginal man how the environment can provide for all of their needs. Until Harry’s anger caused him to throw a burning stick in the wood causing a bushfire. In the end they were found by their father and they once again lived with their parents.

Henwood is a fabulous storyteller in voice, movement and word. She spun words with expertise and created in depth imagery of leaves flying in the air and the raging fire that threatened the children’s lives. She also illustrated how a fairy tale can be adapted to be more relevant to Australians.

Leife Shallcross
This story and theme led nicely into the next presenter’s workshop on ‘How to write an Australian fairy tale’ by Leife Shallcross,Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. Shallcross began her presentation by explaining that for her fairy tales of our childhood are like colouring in sheets. These colouring in sheets are an outline that a writer can give details to when they colour in the picture. It is the writer’s choice how they take a fairy tale and add details to the motifs and narrative structure to create a new multidimensional story.

In this workshop we looked at three steps (an important number for fairy tales) in writing an Australian fairy tale.

  1. Use a childhood memory of Australian culture
  2. Overlay this with the ‘fantastic’ and motifs that are found in fairy tales
  3. Then look at how this fits in with a narrative structure
    • Number repetition
    • Problem
    • Use the fairy tale structure
    • Introduce new theme
    • Rework a fairy tale from your culture

When we applied these steps to ourselves the themes and motifs we chose were;
  • portals
  • food/bounty
  • walled gardens
  • drops of blood
  • hidden treasures
  • nature spirits
  • taming beasts
  • childhood quests
  • magic pots and
  • cautionary tales

Dr. Gillian Polack
So here we all were thinking about our favourite fairy tales and how to turn them into Australian fairy tales until we heard fromDr.Gillian PolackMedievalist, writer and academic. Dr. Polack spoke about the history of fairy tales and how we need to be mindful and careful about which fairy tales we rework as some are fictional and some are based on historical events. It is when we rework historical based fairy tales that we might create cultural insensitive or even dangerous stories. Therefore, when choosing to rework a fairy tale research is required. It is important to make sure that you ask questions before you write the story. It all comes down to your own sense of responsibility and ethics.

With Dr Polack we delved very briefly into how fairy tales get to where they are now. That fairy tales are not always as old as we think they are and their collection is quite recent in history. The collections from medieval times were known as sermon literature that included fairy tales and biblical stories. Dr Polack highlighted that when fairy tales were collected the authors were often selective in what was included and they often changed stories to be more relevant for their culture and audience e.g.Grimm brothers 1812, Marie-CatherineBaronne d'Aulnoy 1892 or Vladimir Yakovlevich Propp1928. A more detailed overview of Dr. Polack’s talk will be available from 2 May 2017 on The History Girls blog.

Erin-Claire Barrow
For a different view of fairy tales we were delighted byErin-Claire Barrow, writer and illustrator of feminist fairy tales, on ‘how to illustrate an Australian fairy tale. She initially spoke about her background in drawing and passed around the room a number of her illustrations for us to view. Barrow said that she liked/s to draw everywhere; school, the bus, during lectures and meetings. I could personally attest to this as I sat next to her for the day and she created amazing sketches all day long. Barrow said that as a girl she loved to view fairy tale illustrations from the golden age; Kay NielsenArthur Rackham and John Bauer.  Newer artists that inspire Barrow include Natee Puttapipat, Rovina Cai and Kelly McMoris.

Barrow had the seminar attendees’ workshop what Australian fairy tale illustrations might include in the landscape, for symbols, what people and which values/identity. Barrow then walked us though the steps that she uses when creating fairy tales illustrations;
  1. Choose a fairy tale
  2. Choose a scene – about 5 scene though out the story
  3. Research the clothing and time period that the story is set in
  4. Sketch characters with notes
  5. Draw thumbnails 5x7cm of each scene until you have one you want to work on
  6. Draw the line art
  7. Add the washes
  8. Add detail for background then foreground and lastly the character. For detailed characters; add detail of the background first then the clothes, hair and lastly the facial details.

We all had an attempt of producing thumbnails for a fairy story we like.
Erin-Claire Barrow's sketch book, drawings done during seminar.

The final session of the day was from Jo Henwood about ‘Fairy Tales in Australia’. She gave a quick historical overview of the fairy tale tradition in Australian post 1820’s;

Finally Henwood highlighted that there is a growing number of academic PhD’s written in the pursuit of the history of fairy tales and specific fairy tales e.g. Kate Forsyth’s research onRapunzel.

Overall it was quite an informative day to mull over.  It was also a great opportunity to meet a fabulous group of female writers and story tellers from a range of literary groups in Canberra.

Other events that may be of interest in 2017:

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