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Reading the World: ‘The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy’, edited by Johanna Sinisalo ****

Although I have showcased rather a lot of Finnish literature during my 2017 Reading the World Project, I felt that The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, edited by Johanna Sinisalo, would add something a little different to proceedings.  It is an anthology which is comprised of the work of twenty distinct Finnish authors, who span the period 1870 to 2003.  They range from the well-known – Moomin creator Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna, for instance – to those which have not been published in English before.   The entirety, with its rather broad scope, has been translated by David Hackston, and is one of the books in the Dedalus series of Fantasy Literature in Translation.

I must begin by writing that I am not personally the biggest fan of fantasy literature; I picked this up because much of it is involved with magical realism, mythology, and Finnish folklore, three topics which I find markedly interesting.  The Independent writes in its review of the book: ‘These excellent stories share an edginess that’s quite distinct from the quirkiness many contemporary English writers prefer to celebrate.’

In her introduction to the anthology, Sinisalo writes: ‘Literature written in the Finnish language is surprisingly young.’  In fact, written literature has existed for only a few centuries, and secular literature only since the 1800s.  Most Finns did, and still do, write in Swedish, which has official language status throughout the country.  As with other Nordic countries, literature is incredibly important for the population; many people read, and Sinisalo points out that ‘literature is read, bought and borrowed from libraries more than almost anywhere else.  Statistically Finns are among the most literate people in the world.’9781903517291

In The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, a lot of the entries are short stories, but there are also some carefully chosen extracts from longer works.  Each entrant is among good company; six of the twenty authors included have received the most prestigious literary award to exist in Finland, and many have been translated in a whole host of different languages.  Sinisalo has intended to ‘build up a cross-section of Finnish fantasy, both thematically and chronologically.’  Whilst the stories included are largely very different, Sinisalo writes that when compiling the book, she ‘observed that certain distinctly Finnish elements and subjects recur throughout these stories, albeit in a myriad of different ways, but in such a way that we can almost assume that, exceptionally, they comprise a body of imagery central to Finnish fantasy literature.’

Throughout, the sense of place and nature is so strong, and the collection is not simply a conglomeration of run-of-the-mill fantasy; rather, it is incredibly literary.  Finland’s rich history inspires the stories, which include such fantastical elements as werewolves, and resurrections of stuffed creatures, as well as isolated storms which play havoc.  Different perspectives have been used, including a very striking story told from the voice of a ghost.  The prose, overall, is beautiful, and its translation has been handled marvellously.

Some stories, of course, appealed to me more than others; I half expected that this would be the case.  However, the collection read as a whole is incredibly rich, and presents a splendid thematic idea.  It has reminded me of stories which I adore, as well as bringing new writers to my attention – Sari Peltoniemi’s ‘The Golden Apple’ is a firm new favourite, for example – which can only be a positive.

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‘The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg’ by Michéal Ó Coimín **** (Reading Ireland Month)

Myths, fairytales and legends from all over the world hold a dear place in my heart and fascinate and intrigue me to no end. They are always one of the first literary searches I conduct upon being brought in contact with a new culture, as they often contain so much precious information about the customs and mentality of the countries they originate from.

The Ballad of Oisín in Tir na nÓg is a book I stumbled upon whilst searching for some Irish mythology for the  Reading Ireland Month Cathy and Niall are hosting, and it made me delighted.

The character of Oisín and his adventurous travel to Tir na nÓg or The Land of the Young as it is often translated as, is an old Irish myth whose origin I couldn’t really trace, but in the edition I own it is written in verse form, in the tradition of most epic myths and legends, like The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Song of the Nibelungs by Michéal Ó Coimín in 1750.

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Oisin and the beautiful lady travelling to Tir na nOg.

This epic poem basically consists of a dialogue between Oisín and St. Patrick, to whom our hero relates the circumstances surrounding his journey to The Land of the Young, how he got there and how he ended up returning back. As the legend has it, a very beautiful young lady appeared one day and asked to take Oisín with her to the Land of the Young, promising him youth, wealth, love and everything he could possibly ever desire. Oisín of course accepted this offer and he tells St. Patrick about all the adventures they had while trying to reach this much-promised land.

After his arrival Oisín enjoys his life there, but after a while he comes to miss Ireland, his home country, and asks of his beautiful wife to allow him to go back and see it once. His lady is afraid he will not return, so she tells him to go but make sure he doesn’t get off his horse, because the moment his feet touch the ground he will be unable to return to her Land of the Young.

I do not want to give out the ending (though I’m sure some of you know it already), but I think it’s pretty obvious in which direction Oisín’s story is going to move towards. I really enjoyed reading this legend/poem and picking out all the similarities and differences it has with other similar legends I’ve read or heard of.

In 2014, I spent a semester in Poland as an Erasmus student and I had the opportunity to take a splendid course about fairies in tradition and culture, in which our brilliant lecturer acquainted us with so many different manifestations of fairies and fairy-like creatures and their usual behaviour. From the myth of Sir Orfeo (with which Oisín’s story shares so many elements) to the Shakespeare’s plays and Tolkien’s elves, the fairy tradition can be found in so many places. Therefore, I cannot help but observe the affinity between the fairy queens of those legends and the beautiful young woman who suddenly appeared to claim Oisín as her husband and take him to her land, where all his wishes could come true.

The story of Oisín has inspired so many writers; even W. B. Yeats had written a poem called The Wanderings of Oisin, which I’m certain is a retelling of this myth, as both Oisín and St. Patrick are included and it is also written in the form of an epic poem.

I throroughly enjoyed reading this myth, in addition to enhancing my mythology/legend collection. The storyline may seem typical today (though I’m not entirely sure where it was first encountered) but the Irish elements and the Gaelic influences are more than evident.

Have you read or heard of this myth? What other similar myths do you enjoy? 🙂

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One From the Archive: ‘Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold’ by C.S. Lewis ***

First published in May 2014.

In Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis retells – or, rather, reinterprets – the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  Throughout, the story, which takes place in the Kingdom of Glome, is told from the first person perspective of Orual, Psyche’s ‘ugly’ older sister. 

Redival and Orual are the daughters of a king and queen.  When their mother dies, their father remarries rather quickly, and their stepmother passes away after giving birth to a baby girl named Istra.  Istra is rather quickly given the nickname of Psyche by Orual, who dotes upon her from the first.  As one might expect in a novel such as this, there is a thread of brutality which can be found from beginning to end.  Violence is a way of life in Glome, and the king in particular exemplifies this cruelty.

Orual is quite a strong heroine, but in some ways, she did not quite feel fully developed.  I did not like her, but on reflection, I do not think that I really needed to.  She is such a pivotal character in Lewis’ retelling of the myth, who serves to bring all of the story’s threads together coherently, and her behaviour – nasty though it was – was rendered understandable due to her past and the treatment of others under her father’s rule.  The same can also be said for Redival.

Lewis’ take on the myth has been well thought out, and the twists which he weaves into the plot are clever and often unexpected.  He clearly knows the original material well, and successfully puts his own spin onto the story’s events.  Despite this, I found that it took rather a long time – until Psyche’s birth, really, which does not occur for some time – to get into the story.  Lewis does not make the best use of his Ancient Greek setting throughout, and the beginning of the novel does not therefore feel grounded in any way. Some of the dialogue used sadly felt a little flat, and it was particularly unemotional during those scenes in which it really should have been.

Whilst I did not enjoy Till We Have Faces as much as I thought I would, it is a good choice for a book club read, as many points within its pages are worthy of discussion.  I am looking forward to reading more of Lewis’ adult books, particularly to see the ways in which they compare to this one.

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Flash Reviews: Non-Fiction (18th June 2014)

The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition by Robert Graves *****

‘The Greek Myths: The Complete and Definitive Edition’

1. I received this gorgeous and much sought-after book for Christmas, and could not wait to read it.  I have always adored Greek mythology – more so since I visited Olympia in Greece last year.
2. I really like the format which Graves has adopted.  Each myth has been given its own heading, and Graves in turn writes the story using as many different sources as he could find, and comments upon such details as the history and social conditions of each item of interest.
3. Graves’ prose style is so smooth, and so well thought out.

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Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View by Jeffrey Meyers ****
1. My boyfriend knows how much I adore Katherine Mansfield, and bought me this biography as an anniversary present.  I adore Mansfield criticism, and this is amongst the best I have come across thus far.  The introduction, however, does not seem to paint Meyers in the best light – he seems dismissive and quite offensive at times.
2. Throughout, Meyers has used his sources well, deciding both to back things up and discount others by use of his evidence.  He has spoken to a wealth of first-hand sources too, which makes all the difference.
3. Meyers does not paint the most flattering portrait of Katherine, but perhaps that is what a biographer should do – setting out what he believes are the facts for his readers, whether acting in the favour of his subjects or not.  It is sure to provide Mansfield fans with much to consider, and a lot to learn.

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‘Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl’

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock ****
1. The cover design of the lovely paperback (pictured) is stunning, and the utmost consideration has been made about its layout.
2. From the first, Sturrock’s account is marvellously written.  I love the way in which he weaves in different anecdotes from Dahl’s life.  Calling it ‘human’ may sound odd, but it is profoundly so; I have rarely read a biography which does not occasionally become bogged down in details, but Storyteller remains fresh and coherent throughout.
3. Dahl was an incredibly complex man, and Sturrock both realises and understands this.  He has so much respect for Dahl, and is thus the perfect author for such a book.

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Flash Reviews (16th October 2013)

The Blue Lenses and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier ****
I love Daphne du Maurier’s books, and her short stories are especially powerful.  This collection, also published as The Breaking Point and Other Stories, promises ‘eight stories which explore the half-forgotten world of childhood fantasies and subtle dreams’.  This quote, coupled with the tales in The Birds and Other Stories, the first of du Maurier’s story collections which I read, made me hope for rather a dark and memorable collection, and that, I am pleased to say, is exactly what I was met with.  Each plotline throughout was surprising, and the twists and turns made me unable to guess what was about to happen.  The tales were startling and full of power, and I very much enjoyed them all for different reasons.

'The Weight' by Jeanette Winterson

‘The Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson

Weight by Jeanette Winterson ****
The two books which I’ve read in the Canongate Myths series so far (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy) have been great.  Both were very imaginative stories, and I thus had high hopes for Winterson’s offering to the series.  Her chosen story, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles told in her distinct and unique way, was a marvellous addition to the oeuvre.  The different narrative techniques used throughout complemented with one another, and I loved the way in which the story was presented.  The inclusion of a concurrent present day story running alongside Winterson’s interpretation of the myth worked well.  My only qualm with Weight is that there were perhaps a few too many sexually explicit scenes woven in which were not really necessary, but it is a great read nonetheless.

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare **
I didn’t find Love’s Labour’s Lost as intriguing or interesting as the majority of Shakespeare’s other plays.  The storyline, whilst interesting, did not quite hook me from the outset, as most of his other work has done.  The plot often felt overshadowed by other elements, and I did not feel that it was as developed as I was expecting it to be.  I liked Moth as a character, but he did not feature enough for my liking.  I shall be watching the film version on my boyfriend’s recommendation, but at present, this sadly ranks amongst my least favourite Shakespeare plays.

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Myths & Legends #1: Echo and Narcissus

Echo and Narcissus is one of my favourite stories in Greek mythology of all time, dating back from childhood, and is the very reason I have John William Waterhouse’s beautiful piece depicting the two on my wall at home. I was fixated with Narcissus as a child, a man so beautiful he sparked desire in both men and women alike, and always thought to myself that there were indeed a few Narcissus’ attending my very school at that time. Kirsty and I both adore mythology to the high heavens, particularly greek, and so I would love to share and remind ourselves of this fantastical tale from the masterpiece that is Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Tiresias’ fame of prophecy was spread
through all the cities of Aonia,
for his unerring answers unto all
480 who listened to his words. And first of those
that harkened to his fateful prophecies,
a lovely Nymph, named Liriope, came
with her dear son, who then fifteen, might seem
a man or boy–he who was born to her
485 upon the green merge of Cephissus’ stream–
that mighty River-God whom she declared
the father of her boy.–
she questioned him.
Imploring him to tell her if her son,
490 unequalled for his beauty, whom she called
Narcissus, might attain a ripe old age.
To which the blind seer answered in these words,
“If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun,”–
495 so, frivolous the prophet’s words appeared;
and yet the event, the manner of his death,
the strange delusion of his frenzied love, confirmed it.
Three times five years so were passed.
Another five-years, and the lad might seem
500 a young man or a boy. And many a youth,
and many a damsel sought to gain his love;
but such his mood and spirit and his pride,
none gained his favour.
Once a noisy Nymph,
505 (who never held her tongue when others spoke,
who never spoke till others had begun)
mocking Echo, spied him as he drove,
in his delusive nets, some timid stags.–
for Echo was a Nymph, in olden time,–
510 and, more than vapid sound,–possessed a form:
and she was then deprived the use of speech,
except to babble and repeat the words,
once spoken, over and over.
Juno confused
515 her silly tongue, because she often held
that glorious goddess with her endless tales,
till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace,
had made escape adown a mountain. But
for this, the goddess might have caught them. Thus
520 the glorious Juno, when she knew her guile;
“Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense,
shall be of little use; your endless voice,
much shorter than your tongue.” At once the Nymph
was stricken as the goddess had decreed;–
525 and, ever since, she only mocks the sounds
of others’ voices, or, perchance, returns
their final words.
One day, when she observed
Narcissus wandering in the pathless woods,
530 she loved him and she followed him, with soft
and stealthy tread.–The more she followed him
the hotter did she burn, as when the flame
flares upward from the sulphur on the torch.
Oh, how she longed to make her passion known!
535 To plead in soft entreaty! to implore his love!
But now, till others have begun, a mute
of Nature she must be. She cannot choose
but wait the moment when his voice may give
to her an answer.
540 Presently the youth,
by chance divided from his trusted friends,
cries loudly, “Who is here?” and Echo, “Here!”
Replies. Amazed, he casts his eyes around,
and calls with louder voice, “Come here!” “Come here!”
545 She calls the youth who calls.–He turns to see
who calls him and, beholding naught exclaims,
“Avoid me not!” “Avoid me not!” returns.
He tries again, again, and is deceived
by this alternate voice, and calls aloud;
550 “Oh let us come together!” Echo cries,
“Oh let us come together!” Never sound
seemed sweeter to the Nymph, and from the woods
she hastens in accordance with her words,
and strives to wind her arms around his neck.
555 He flies from her and as he leaves her says,
“Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms
around me. Better death than such a one
should ever caress me!” Naught she answers save,
“Caress me!”
560 Thus rejected she lies hid
in the deep woods, hiding her blushing face
with the green leaves; and ever after lives
concealed in lonely caverns in the hills.
But her great love increases with neglect;
565 her miserable body wastes away,
wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up
her skin, and all her lovely features melt,
as if dissolved upon the wafting winds–
nothing remains except her bones and voice–
570 her voice continues, in the wilderness;
her bones have turned to stone. She lies concealed
in the wild woods, nor is she ever seen
on lonely mountain range; for, though we hear
her calling in the hills, ’tis but a voice,
575 a voice that lives, that lives among the hills.
Thus he deceived the Nymph and many more,
sprung from the mountains or the sparkling waves;
and thus he slighted many an amorous youth.–
and therefore, some one whom he once despised,
580 lifting his hands to Heaven, implored the Gods,
“If he should love deny him what he loves!”
and as the prayer was uttered it was heard
by Nemesis, who granted her assent.
There was a fountain silver-clear and bright,
585 which neither shepherds nor the wild she-goats,
that range the hills, nor any cattle’s mouth
had touched–its waters were unsullied–birds
disturbed it not; nor animals, nor boughs
that fall so often from the trees. Around
590 sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees
that shaded from the sun let balmy airs
temper its waters. Here Narcissus, tired
of hunting and the heated noon, lay down,
attracted by the peaceful solitudes
595 and by the glassy spring. There as he stooped
to quench his thirst another thirst increased.
While he is drinking he beholds himself
reflected in the mirrored pool–and loves;
loves an imagined body which contains
600 no substance, for he deems the mirrored shade
a thing of life to love. He cannot move,
for so he marvels at himself, and lies

'Narcissus' by Caravaggio

‘Narcissus’ by Caravaggio

with countenance unchanged, as if indeed
a statue carved of Parian marble. Long,
605 supine upon the bank, his gaze is fixed
on his own eyes, twin stars; his fingers shaped
as Bacchus might desire, his flowing hair
as glorious as Apollo’s, and his cheeks
youthful and smooth; his ivory neck, his mouth
610 dreaming in sweetness, his complexion fair
and blushing as the rose in snow-drift white.
All that is lovely in himself he loves,
and in his witless way he wants himself:–
he who approves is equally approved;
615 he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt.
And how he kisses the deceitful fount;
and how he thrusts his arms to catch the neck
that’s pictured in the middle of the stream!
Yet never may he wreathe his arms around
620 that image of himself. He knows not what
he there beholds, but what he sees inflames
his longing, and the error that deceives
allures his eyes. But why, O foolish boy,
so vainly catching at this flitting form?
625 The cheat that you are seeking has no place.
Avert your gaze and you will lose your love,
for this that holds your eyes is nothing save
the image of yourself reflected back to you.
It comes and waits with you; it has no life;
630  it will depart if you will only go.
Nor food nor rest can draw him thence–outstretched
upon the overshadowed green, his eyes
fixed on the mirrored image never may know
their longings satisfied, and by their sight
635 he is himself undone. Raising himself
a moment, he extends his arms around,
and, beckoning to the murmuring forest; “Oh,
ye aisled wood was ever man in love
more fatally than I? Your silent paths
640 have sheltered many a one whose love was told,
and ye have heard their voices. Ages vast
have rolled away since your forgotten birth,
but who is he through all those weary years
that ever pined away as I? Alas,
645 this fatal image wins my love, as I
behold it. But I cannot press my arms
around the form I see, the form that gives
me joy. What strange mistake has intervened
betwixt us and our love? It grieves me more
650 that neither lands nor seas nor mountains, no,
nor walls with closed gates deny our loves,
but only a little water keeps us far
asunder. Surely he desires my love
and my embraces, for as oft I strive
655 to kiss him, bending to the limpid stream
my lips, so often does he hold his face
fondly to me, and vainly struggles up.
It seems that I could touch him. ‘Tis a strange
delusion that is keeping us apart.
660 “Whoever thou art, Come up! Deceive me not!
Oh, whither when I fain pursue art thou?
Ah, surely I am young and fair, the Nymphs
have loved me; and when I behold thy smiles
I cannot tell thee what sweet hopes arise.
665 When I extend my loving arms to thee
thine also are extended me — thy smiles
return my own. When I was weeping, I
have seen thy tears, and every sign I make
thou cost return; and often thy sweet lips
670 have seemed to move, that, peradventure words,
which I have never heard, thou hast returned.
“No more my shade deceives me, I perceive
‘Tis I in thee–I love myself–the flame
arises in my breast and burns my heart–
675 what shall I do? Shall I at once implore?
Or should I linger till my love is sought?
What is it I implore? The thing that I
desire is mine–abundance makes me poor.
Oh, I am tortured by a strange desire
680 unknown to me before, for I would fain
put off this mortal form; which only means
I wish the object of my love away.
Grief saps my strength, the sands of life are run,
and in my early youth am I cut off;
685 but death is not my bane–it ends my woe.–
I would not death for this that is my love,
as two united in a single soul
would die as one.”
He spoke; and crazed with love,
690 returned to view the same face in the pool;
and as he grieved his tears disturbed the stream,
and ripples on the surface, glassy clear,
defaced his mirrored form. And thus the youth,
when he beheld that lovely shadow go;
695 “Ah whither cost thou fly? Oh, I entreat
thee leave me not. Alas, thou cruel boy
thus to forsake thy lover. Stay with me
that I may see thy lovely form, for though
I may not touch thee I shall feed my eyes
700 and soothe my wretched pains.” And while he spoke
he rent his garment from the upper edge,
and beating on his naked breast, all white
as marble, every stroke produced a tint
as lovely as the apple streaked with red,
705 or as the glowing grape when purple bloom
touches the ripening clusters.
When as glass
again the rippling waters smoothed, and when
such beauty in the stream the youth observed,
710 no more could he endure. As in the flame
the yellow wax, or as the hoar-frost melts
in early morning ‘neath the genial sun;
so did he pine away, by love consumed,
and slowly wasted by a hidden flame.
715 No vermeil bloom now mingled in the white
of his complexion fair; no strength has he,
no vigor, nor the comeliness that wrought
for love so long: alas, that handsome form
by Echo fondly loved may please no more.
720 But when she saw him in his hapless plight,
though angry at his scorn, she only grieved.
As often as the love-lore boy complained,
“Alas!” “Alas!” her echoing voice returned;
and as he struck his hands against his arms,
725 she ever answered with her echoing sounds.
And as he gazed upon the mirrored pool
he said at last, “Ah, youth beloved in vain!”
“In vain, in vain!” the spot returned his words;
and when he breathed a sad “farewell!” “Farewell!”

'Écho et Narcisse' by Nicolas Poussin

‘Écho et Narcisse’ by Nicolas Poussin

730 sighed Echo too. He laid his wearied head,
and rested on the verdant grass; and those
bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced,
on their own master’s beauty, sad Night closed.
And now although among the nether shades
735 his sad sprite roams, he ever loves to gaze
on his reflection in the Stygian wave.
His Naiad sisters mourned, and having clipped
their shining tresses laid them on his corpse:
and all the Dryads mourned: and Echo made
740 lament anew. And these would have upraised
his funeral pyre, and waved the flaming torch,
and made his bier; but as they turned their eyes
where he had been, alas he was not there!
And in his body’s place a sweet flower grew,
745  golden and white, the white around the gold.

'Narcissus' by Angela Joseph

‘Narcissus’ by Angela Joseph