The Gingerbread House Literary Magazine Editors decided it might be fun to ask some of our favorite authors a question:
Do you find you have a particular myth, fairy tale, or other text, that you return to again and again, that serves as a sort of ur-text/blueprint for your own craft? How has this shaped you as an artist?
Our first respondent is Carolyn Turgeon, who is the author of five novels—Rain Village, Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story, Mermaid, The Fairest of Them All, and the middle-grade The Next Full Moon, most of them based on old-time fairy tales—and, more recently, The Faerie Handbook and The Mermaid Handbook. She’s also the editor-in-chief and co-owner of Faerie Magazine, a quarterly print publication about which the NY Times said, “It’s as though Martha Stewart Living and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene had a magazine baby.” Currently she’s working on a third handbook and a new novel. She lives in Baltimore. Read more at carolynturgeon.com and at faeriemag.com.
In response to our question, Carolyn says:
I don’t know that I can point to one text. I read so many myths and fairy tales as a child that I’m sure they’ve all combined into one giant blueprint that has shaped most of what I’ve done and do as a writer. The older I get, the more I realize how fundamental those first texts were, actually! Probably one of the earliest for me was Bullfinch’s Mythology, which I believe I read in an elementary school class and became obsessed with and am probably still obsessed with, at some level. I started reading as much as I could about those myths. I loved those glamorous gods and goddesses, those dazzling hybrids and transformations. I loved the moment when Achilles kills the ferocious soldier during the Trojan war, then lifts the soldier’s helmet to find the queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea. Her long hair tumbles out, and he—shocked and devastated—falls madly in love with her in the same moment he realizes he’s killed her. It’s so dramatic and gorgeous and tragic!
I loved, too, the idea that a god could place a hero in the sky as a constellation, that so many of these larger-than-life characters were now literally stars in heaven, making designs in the sky. Here’s the story of one of the more famous constellations: “… [Orion] dwelt as a hunter with Diana, with whom he was a favourite, and it is even said she was about to marry him. Her brother [Apollo] was highly displeased and chide her, but to no purpose. One day, observing Orion wading through the ocean with his head just above the water, Apollo pointed it out to his sister and maintained that she could not hit that black thing on the sea. The archer-goddess discharged a shaft with fatal aim. The waves rolled the body of Orion to the land, and bewailing her fatal error with many tears, Diana placed him among the stars.”
Just writing this now makes me realize that this moment from my first novel, Rain Village, came directly from those old myths, when my young protagonist Tessa meets the sexy ex-circus star librarian Mary Finn for the first time, a woman who’s appeared in her tiny farm town like some kind of mythical goddess and changes her life. When they first meet, Mary lifts Tessa’s hand and explains that the half-moons on her fingernails were once part of a star, and it’s the first time Tessa feels at all special or noticed in her life. “Every part of your body—the moon on your pinky nail, the blue rim in the center of your eye—was once part of a star,” Mary says. In response, Tessa feels “all lit-up and almost glowing imagining my body spread across the night sky like an explosion, sparkling down to the half-moons on my fingernails.”
Of all those wonderful myths maybe the one I loved the most, or at least the one that’s stuck with me most strongly, was the story of Apollo and Daphne. I reference it in at least a few of my books, just quick little flashes, and I actually have a tattoo up my left arm of Daphne transforming into a laurel tree. I guess all these stories involve some kind of intense tragic beauty, rooted in violence, and the story of Daphne is no exception. You might remember that Daphne is daughter of the river god Peneus, a nymph who wanted nothing to do with men, only to “range the woods” and remain unmarried “like Diana.” Apollo, who’s madly in love with her, chases Daphne through the forest. As he gains on her and reaches out to grab her, she calls out to her father for help. “Help me, Peneus!” she says, “open the earth to enclose me, or change my form, which has brought me into this danger!” And then: “Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches; her foot stuck fast in the ground, as a root; her face became a tree-top, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty …”
To me, the image of this beautiful, wild maiden transforming slowly into a leaf-covered tree is so lush and rich and jam-packed. That such beauty (and freedom, possibly, in her going completely wild) would stem from a moment of such violence—that she had a way out, that she could become something else, something beautiful and wild, instead of the alternative, which was to be raped. Probably as a young girl about to enter puberty, with a body that was already changing and not by my own choice, this appealed to me: the idea of a wild, untouched girl transforming into a tree and in this way staying wild forever, a daughter of Diana. Of course, Apollo then takes leaves from the tree/Daphne to make himself a crown of laurel leaves, and this becomes the symbol for all poetry, right? Which is weird and disturbing, the idea that poetry is sort of born from that kind of violence and violation (and beauty).
As a college student and graduate student in Italian literature later in my life, I studied the poetry of Petrarch, which is full of references to Daphne and the laurel tree (which comes to stand in for his own love, Laura, who dies as a young woman), and I was fascinated by that same weirdness. And I suppose it’s possible to look at Daphne as a solely tragic figure, trapped forever in this rigid form, the leaves of which provide the content of so much human poetry. But to me she’s a sort of feminist symbol, in her wildness and her beauty and in the choice that she makes. I know there are moments in my life—and in many women’s lives—where that sort of choice would have been welcome.
In my own writing, I think I circle back and back to these sorts of moments involving transformation, and violence, and magic, and beauty, and that same strand of wild feminism, like when the little mermaid takes a potion to split her tail into legs or when the fairy godmother spreads her massive, painful white-feathered wings, or when Rapunzel (who becomes Snow White’s stepmother in my book The Fairest of Them All) eats the bloody heart.