David Bowie’s “Changes” as a Shakespearean sonnet

When I originally set up this blog, it was going to be a style blog (hence the whimsical title). Then, when my novel was published, it was going to be a repository for writerly wisdom on its themes. Now that almost a year has elapsed since I posted anything, I feel the time has come to go for broke and shovel in whatever comes to mind. And today, what comes to mind is my response to someone’s challenge to rewrite “Changes” as a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all.

What inspired such an exercise? Someone on Facebook, no less, who shared a version of Glora Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” as a Shakespearean sonnet (credit where it’s due: http://www.thepoke.co.uk/2016/02/11/gloria-gaynors-will-survive-shakespearean-sonnet/). I mused that I would love to carry on this tradition, and someone nominated a song. This song:

CHANGES

Of that for which I waited I knew naught
And wild didst run my time, on streets that led
My feet but to impasses when I thought
A glimpse of honey’d triumph was ahead.

So turned I to the glass to seek within
How other eyes this charlatan might view
And yet its silver’d pond cannot begin
To snare the swift illusions I accrue.

Let change and change again endow its spell
As I affront my own uncanny ways
Let change another guise in me compel
I shun the sun of opulence and praise.

Though time this man may alter with its whip
To fathom time is yet beyond his grip.

***

Iambic pentameter I can do. My ability to mimic Shakespearean grammar and vocabulary is shakier, as I’ve barely laid eyes on the stuff since I left school, but hey, I have the Bard’s complete works at my disposal, and I can revise. For the moment, I feel it’s accomplishment enough to have actually posted something.

Realistically, it probably doesn’t matter what or whether I post here, of course. I’m well aware that Peak Blog has long since come and gone, and Peak Facebook followed not long afterward. All the same, while I’m in the mood, I may do the same to a few more classic songs, because we definitely haven’t yet reached Peak Sonnet…

 

Branagh’s Cinderella: The impossibly angelic Disney princess

Even though I’ve been writing fairytale retellings since I was 10 or so, I’m ashamed to confess that I’ve never seen any of the animated Disney movies. So far my source material has always been the written versions published by the Brothers Grimm.

After publishing ‘Let Down Your Hair’, though, I tracked down some fellow fairytale scholars, and finally saw two Disney fairy tale adaptations with them: Maleficent, which I saw last year, and Cinderella, which I saw the night before last. And even though these two movies took a different approach to the original tales (Cinderella is a straightforward adaptation, Maleficent presents the story from the Wicked Fairy’s point of view), both of them had me twitching in my seat with their depiction of The Princess.

I don’t mind the standard issue long blonde hair. Long blonde hair is pretty, and when you’re telling a story set in northern Europe, it’s fitting enough that the beautiful heroine has the stuff. I’ve mused here before about the miniscule waistlines (which bother me more in the live action versions, where there’s a more concrete “you too could/should look like this” subtext than you get from a cartoon), but I can live with them so long as they’re not Photoshopped into cartoon proportions. What bothered me most in these movies wasn’t the way the princesses looked. It was how they behaved.

I get that storybook princesses are fictional. The innocent, beautiful kind young girl is the sort of archetype you expect to find in a fairy tale. But watching actual human actors floating about all innocent and radiant and golden-haired having twee conversations with adoring little animals struck me as a bit sickening and sinister.

For a start, these princesses are teenage girls, right? I challenge anyone who’s had close contact with real teenage girls to identify a single one who wafts around like an angel of goodness kissing flowers all day. People who project this innocent angel image onto real teenage girls tend to be people who’ve well and truly lost touch with the sweaty, self-conscious, nasty world of adolescence (and, I fear, often people who want to cast them as sexual fantasy figures, but more on that later). Unless she was very sheltered or lucky, any girl who was that innocent and kind and beautiful would be DOOMED in your average high school.

Another disturbing angle to reflect on is the extreme popularity of the Princess as a fantasy for little girls. Walk down the toys aisle in a department store and the designated girls’ shelves are positively shimmering with tiaras and Elsa costumes and begging little girls whose dream is to be a princess when they grow up. And while those little girls will nominally grow out of this by seven or eight, I personally suspect the fantasy just goes underground and resurfaces later as the Princess for a Day wedding fantasy. Apparently it’s common for women to experience post-wedding depression, because their wedding has been set up as the pinnacle of their lives, and it’s all downhill from there. In the movies, they scroll the credits after the wedding; in real life you have to keep building your happily ever after, and lots of people don’t succeed.

My final and most disturbing thought was who invented this angel-princess template? Seeing the live action movies are drawing on their animated predecessors, I presume the answer is whoever was calling the shots at the Disney studios. Walt himself, and/or his directors and producers. And I’m guessing here, but something tells me that most of these people were middle-aged men. Do those anodyne princess-angels with their impossibly sweet-natured blonde innocence and almost total absence of personality represent Disney’s personal fantasy of the perfect pliable virgin bride? Not a pleasant thought, especially if you cherished those movies as a child, but not an implausible one either…

On genre: “Fairytale romance” vs “Fairytale adaptation”

Being called a ‘romance writer’ has been one of the strangest things about publishing ‘Let Down Your Hair’. To my mind, I was writing was a present-day feminist retelling of Rapunzel. Chick lit, maybe, but not romance. If I had to classify the novel myself, I’d call it New Adult coming-of-age.

The plot does follow the romance convention of ‘girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back’, of course. That’s because ‘Let Down Your Hair’ is a retelling of Rapunzel, which also follows that convention. And yes, the novel features a significant romance, but the romance is the catalyst, not the core. The core relationship is the (grand)parent-child relationship between Sage and the formidable Andrea, not the romance between Sage and Ryan. LDYH isn’t the story of a young woman being rescued by a handsome prince, it’s the story of a young woman whose first sexual relationship inspires her to escape her oppressive guardian.

The romance label has come with some unexpected questions from bloggers. Before publication, I’d been expecting to field questions from feminists objecting to the way I’d fed the negative stereotype of the humourless, hairy-legged man-hater. Instead, I was being asked to describe my idea of a perfect romantic evening!

I’ve also found that calling my novel a romance shaped readers’ expectations. These days, the wordfairytale’ feels innocent and sweet, because people associate it with bedtime stories for children and Disney’s animated movies. Putting ‘romance’ and ‘fairytale’ together when promoting ‘Let Down Your Hair’ attracted readers who expected a light-hearted ‘fairytale romance’. What they got was a fairytale adaptation, where the witches are centre-stage, not the prince. It’s also quite dark, because I wasn’t drawing on Disney. What I had in mind was the brutal original fairy tales, which had lots of violence, sex and death. Not the sort of thing you pick up when you’re looking for escapist fun, and it showed in the early reviews. I ended up getting my publisher to change to a grittier blurb.

Given that I plan to write more fairytale retellings, it’s been a useful lesson to learn. It’s also made me wonder whether I could write a fairytale romance. Maybe not: I am a romantic at heart, but one with a dark, subversive streak. Writing a dark, subversive romance feels like more my kind of thing…

Finding my Rapunzel

In the fairytale, readers don’t learn that much about what makes Rapunzel tick. We know that’s she’s beautiful, with long golden hair, and that she has a lovely voice and likes to sing. More significantly, as far as her character’s concerned, she’s been raised by a vengeful and controlling woman. One who took her from her parents as punishment for theft, and then locked her in a tower at twelve.

How would Rapunzel turn out after such a strange and isolated childhood? When the Prince turns up in the fairytale, we see that she’s innocent and sheltered. Though initially scared by the first man she’s seen, she comes to trust and embrace him very quickly. And then naively gives away the fact that he’s being visiting to her guardian, who cuts off her hair and throws her out.

In ‘Let Down Your Hair’, my Rapunzel is called Sage. Sage narrates the story, which is set in the present in an unspecified English-speaking country. When planning the novel, I was worried about how Sage would come across. Would anyone buy that a 22 year woman could be so ignorant of technology and popular culture? How could I make so sheltered and naive a character both plausible and likeable for readers?

What ultimately helped me find Sage’s voice was remembering a girl I met who was studying classical music. She was 19 or so, but her tailored trousers and blouse looked like something a 50 year old woman might wear to work. When she spoke, her voice was so serious and formal she sounded like she was delivering a eulogy. I asked where she’d gone to school, and she said “My parents educated me themselves. They don’t approve of schools.”

The writer in me was fascinated. I asked her what it was like being home-schooled, and it was like I’d opened a stiff and bitter floodgate. She didn’t mind at the time, she said, because they told her terrible things about schools, and she’d felt grateful and lucky to be spared them. It wasn’t until she turned eighteen and went to university that she realised what they’d done.

On the academic front, her parents had done a wonderful job. She spoke two languages, played several musical instruments, and topped every subject she studied. On the social front, however, she’d found they’d basically guaranteed that she couldn’t connect with her peers.

All the other students shared so many experiences that she could never have. Teachers and classmates and uniforms. Learning in a classroom with their days sliced into periods and lunchtimes and marked by the ringing of a bell. Childhood books and TV programs they’d all watched, slang they shared, songs they all knew the words to. “I grew up in the same country as them,” she said, “but I felt like I’d come from another planet.” I asked what she’d do if she had her own children, and she said, “I would send them to school.”

Many years later, that short conversation was crucial for developing Sage. Like her, Sage is homeschooled, and does brilliantly at university but can’t connect with her peers. She only starts feeling at home in the world when Ryan (the Prince) accepts her as she is and takes her under his wing.

I never met that girl again, but I sometimes wonder what became of her. I’m not sure whether she’d be flattered or horrified by the character I based on her at 19. Even if I managed to track her down, I don’t know that I’d dare to tell her. But I hope she’s no longer as bitter as she was. I hope she found her Ryan.

Tower of strength

When the Brothers Grimm published their collection of tales, the world’s tallest building was a cathedral. Strasbourg Cathedral, to be precise, which is 142 metres high (466ft), or the equivalent of a building with forty or fifty storeys. I found this out today, and it made me think about ‘Rapunzel’ in terms of its logistics. The events in a fairytale don’t need to be possible, of course, but it’s still quite fun to speculate.

With a flurry of Googling, I went to check the facts. Apparently, the longest human hair on record for 2014 is 5.627 metres long, and belongs to a Chinese woman called Xie Qiuping. A typical storey in a building is about 3.3 metres in height. By my calculations, allowing maybe three metres for the distance between the roof and the window and how high the Witch could reach, you could in theory have a tower around nine metres high (just under three storeys), which would have looked pretty impressive when ‘Rapunzel’ was published.

The next thing to consider is how much weight Rapunzel’s hair could bear. According to a scientific website I found, human hair has stronger “tensile strength” than nylon. This means if you stretch a hair and a strand of nylon of the same thickness, the nylon would break before the hair. Given that a lot of rope is made out of nylon, Rapunzel might in theory be able to weave a rope from her hair strong enough to support an adult human’s weight. Unfortunately, if this rope were attached at one end to Rapunzel’s scalp, it would almost certainly be yanked out at the roots long before the witch reached the window. She’d have to knot her hair-rope around something in her room to keep the hairs in their follicles.

In theory, then, using someone’s hair to climb a tower might not be completely impossible. Intriguing. Maybe I should give Xie Qiuping a call and see if she wants to take part in a little experiment…

Goldilocks: The Interloper

Happy New Year to all! After neglecting this blog shamelessly over Christmas, I am back and ready to muse on that odd stepchild of fairytales that is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. After extensive research (viz. checking the contents pages of my Grimm and Andersen collections and a quick Googling), I found myself scratching my head as to how this particular tale wangled itself into the well-known fairytale canon.

For a start, according to that fount of wisdom that is Wikipedia, it isn’t from either of the standard Grimm and Andersen collections, but was written (or at least recorded) by some 19th century English poet called Robert Southey. Furthermore, most of the other classic tales have at least some hint of an overarching theme. Lots of them have a “Victim triumphs over oppression” theme (e.g. Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, the Bremen Town Musicians), or a dash of “Love conquers all ills” (e.g. Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel). In this department, Goldilocks has little to offer, unless you’re a fan of  “Picky housebreaker escapes justice”. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the age-old love for good-looking troublemakers and anti-heroes (see also Draco Malfoy).

I was amused to learn that the original housebreaker was a villainous old woman, who was changed to a pretty girl with golden ringlets. Apparently this went down much better with the reading public. It seems that all goods from cars to fairytales sell better if you market them with a blonde! (good news for me, since there’s a blonde on the cover of Let Down Your Hair…) At some point it might be interesting to speculate on why, but that would involve talking about far more hefty topics than I want to go into tonight.

Going back to Goldilocks, its threadbare theme makes it a tricky story to retell. You could do it as a short story, but to make it a novel you’d have to expand it a lot and be far looser with your adaptation. An interesting challenge, but not one I’m inspired to take up any time soon. I did take it up as a child, though… among my childhood papers I discovered a twisted version of Goldilocks I wrote in rhyming verse, aged around ten!  Don’t even remember writing it, but it goes to show I was destined for a lifetime of adapting fairytales…

The shape of fairytale princesses

‘Let Down Your Hair’ is clearly of its time. Hollywood seems obsessed with fairytale retellings at the moment, what with ‘Into The Woods’ and yet another Cinderella remake. With a promo poster featuring a fairytale princess photoshopped to resemble the shape of her animated forbears:(http://www.themarysue.com/cinderella-waist/).

When it comes to animated princesses, I confess I’m on the fence. On one hand, I can see that heroines with huge eyes and waists smaller than their necks aren’t a shape you want a little girl to aspire to. On the other, I’m not entirely convinced that little girls *do* aspire to be the shape of their cartoon characters or Bratz dolls or whatever. I haven’t read any decent research on this, but I’ve certainly heard stories about four-year-old girls who’ve cut off well-meaning reassurances with comments like “Barbie’s only a doll, Aunty Sue. She’s just pretend.”

Part of the problem is my Inner Scientist getting in the way and waffling about super stimuli. These, for those who’ve never heard of them, are things where the features that appeal to people (or other creatures) are exaggerated. They did these experiments with chicks in the 1970s or something. They found that seagull chicks actually pecked more at a fake-looking beak that was long and thin and stripy than they did at a realistic model of an adult gull’s head. Disney princesses are drawn along the same principles. Large eyes and small waists appeal, so they’ve exaggerated these features until the eyes are about as long as the waists are wide. You’d think they’d look gross and distorted, but they don’t, do they?

My feeling is that a doll or cartoon character isn’t nearly as powerful as a Photoshopped photo of an actual woman. The message then is that this is a shape someone real has achieved, therefore even inadequate you can attain it too, if you try hard enough. So sign up and pay us lots of money for these diets, gym memberships and operations!

I explore notions of beauty and status quite a bit in Parts II&IV of ‘Let Down Your Hair’. Terrible business. But it is, indeed, business, and big business, so the images keep coming, and with them the myth that the closer you get to that shape, the “happier” you’ll become. “Happier” being the advertiser’s way of saying “higher status”, i.e. envied by more women and pursued by more men. Never mind that envy can be toxic and men who want a trophy might not be what you want.