An edited version of this review appeared on ShortbreadStories.com on 8th June 2015. In May I visited the British Academy in London for two of the events in their Literature Week programme. This was the British Academy’s fourth biennial Literature Week and a range of public events around the theme of ‘Other Worlds’: exploring the fantastical and the magical with a week on fairy tales and folk tales, literary genres which transcend cultural, historical and national boundaries. Authors, academics, writers, social commentators and cultural figures explored some of the oldest genres in literature in order to understand why, in a modern world, we are still so captivated by the chance to escape to ‘other worlds’…
Literature Week 2015 at the British Academy 11-17 May
Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t ever heard of the British Academy, but an advert for their upcoming public event series featuring a young girl falling down a rabbit hole caught my attention. Given that I live more than an hour’s journey from central London and work through the day, I opted for two of their evening events. The first was the programme launch with fairy tale writer and academic Marina Warner and the second a panel discussion on the irresistible rise of the fairy tale.
Into the Woods Literature Week Launch Night Monday – 11th May – 6-8pm
Author and critic Marina Warner was ‘in conversation’ with award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick to introduce the theme of fairy tales and folk tales. This event featured live storytelling from the Crick Crack Club. I arrived early and, after having a wander round the fairy tale illustration exhibition on the ground floor, I picked up one of the 100 free tote bags on offer. There’s not much in the way of swag inside, but the tote features the Wonderland-like promo image and its good quality. I’ve already designated it as my new book bag. By the time the event was due to start there were very few seats left in the room – most likely because of the combined pull of Warner the academic, Sedgwick the writer and Haggerty the storyteller and performer. Warner opened the event by giving us a whirlwind tour through her latest publication, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. This was the only ‘lecture style’ part of the event but Warner is a consummate professional, and never, ever boring. Her talk was beautifully illustrated with some of the images from her book and highlighted the immense history behind the fairy tale form. If Warner emphasised the need for research, Marcus Sedgwick brought the event back to the subject of writing fairy tales. He mostly discussed his book Blood Red Snow White (which I have but haven’t gotten around to reading yet) in which he utilised the fairy tale form in order to save what on the first drafting was a ‘boring’ and linear semi-biography. Warner and Sedgwick in conversation threw up some interesting contrasts between the methods of the two writers; with Sedgwick resisting drawing generalisations form his own experiences as a writer. He reminded the audience that the creatures and characters are not fixed, and that we can make our own stamp on the genre without losing its authenticity. On being a storyteller, he cautioned that ‘as a writer I am not there to give answers – I am there to ask questions.’ However, the highlight of the night was Crick Crack Club founder and high grand master Ben Haggerty who treated us to a live story performance. Real storytelling makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, and Haggerty is a master of his craft. As he said, story is alive and well in the world and unique to the moment. There was no recording permitted, not even pen and paper. I can tell you that it featured a Russian Witch with a large nose who flies around in a mortar and pestle. Live storytelling requires precision in timing and engaging your audience with every line, and Haggerty had the audience enthralled.
The Golden Age of Retelling Panel Discussion – Tuesday 12th May – 6-7.30pm
Bringing together the literary with the social sciences, journalist Julia Eccleshare chaired a discussion with Peter Brooks FBA, Sally Gardner, Nicholas Tucker and Jack Zipes to explore why we just can’t stop telling tales. Much less structured and scripted than the previous night’s event, this panel discussion explored the very different ways that academics and writers understand the fairy tale form. While Julia Eccleshare kept the discussion (and the panellists) in check, the main interaction was between the view of fairy tales as the formative narratives of childhood and as adult narratives used to reflect and transform society. While the first viewpoint, mostly supported by Nicholas Tucker, sees a slow dwindling death for the fairy tale in modern society as it is drowned out by today’s multimedia narratives. The second, for which Jack Zipes has been a proponent for most of his career, offers a way forward for the fairy tale as a form of narrative that can offer radical vehicle for contemporary storytellers. This is a view that children’s and YA author Sally Gardner carries forward in her writing. I was lucky enough to have my new copy of Tinder signed by her after the discussion, and I highly recommend it for both the story and the wonderful artwork. I will be getting myself to more events at the British Academy in the future, and recommend that you do too. If you’d like to listen to these events, visit the British Academy website.