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The truth in the tales
Robert Dinsdale introduces his new novel Gingerbread by looking at the dark origins of fairytales...
Fairytales: we think of them as simple stories meant for children, moralising tales designed to instruct or entertain – but it was not always this way. Once upon a time, the distinction between fairytale and other forms of storytelling was much less pronounced than it is today – and, like other forms of folktale, these stories were not designed for children alone. These were stories for the long nights, in the ages before stories could be recorded and disseminated stories with which we could order a dark world and make sense of terrible things. They reflected the realities of the worlds in which they originated – for, even though they took place in the magical hinterlands of "once upon a time" and "long, long ago, when we did not exist", there were still hard truths in these tales. Their abandoned children and wicked stepmothers reflected a world in which mothers often died in childbirth. The Queen burning at the stake in the story of The Six Swans held a mirror up to a world still reeling from the terrors of the witch craze and medieval torture. One of the earliest versions of the story we’ve come to know as Hansel and Gretel appears to have had its origin in the Great Famine of the early 1300s, which led families across a starving Europe to commit the most horrific acts, abandoning their children to the wilderness, and perhaps even cannibalising their kin.
These stories forced inconceivable acts into familiar, recognisable shapes – but this act of processing reality as story wasn’t only the preserve of people living in the middle ages and before. Across human history, everywhere that we have confronted darkness, we have employed story to steer us to the light. The siege of Leningrad threw up fables of the "well-fed men", ogres who hunted children on the city streets. Colonial America threw up its own folk stories as woodcutters and other pioneers sought to make sense of their conflicts with the continent’s indigenous inhabitants. And though we no longer recognise them as "fairytales", even today we haven’t stopped using stories to confront our world’s shadows – and we do it, like the original fairytales, in a way not meant for children to consume. The bloodiest of our modern day crime novels and horror movies might be considered analogues to the folktales of centuries gone by: Hannibal Lector is, in effect, the same ogre figure that recurs over and again in the folk tradition, a Baba Yaga for the twentieth century. If Ian Rankin or Val McDermid were writing in the fourteenth century, we would come to know their work as folklore and fairytale; their stories every bit as bloody as the wolf who devours a girl lost in the forest, or the cannibal witch who lures abandoned children to her gingerbread cottage in the wood.
When I sat down to write Gingerbread I knew two things: I knew, first of all, that the story would take place in the forests on the borders of Poland and Belarus, some of the last vestiges of ancient woodland left in Europe. These are wild places, old enough to have been there when the Great Famine gave birth to the story of Hansel and Gretel, and to have borne witness to much more recent atrocities as well. I knew, too, that Gingerbread would be about the formation of its own fairytale, one rooted not in the faraway places of "once upon a time" and "long, long ago, when we did not exist", but in real, recent history. Through the eyes of his grandson, we would watch an old man begin to tell his life story, desperately trying to order it through a succession of savage tales. At first, the grandson would interpret these as fairytales – but soon he would begin to unearth the seeds of truth in those stories. So, just as Hansel and Gretel distilled the experience of the Great Famine of the early 1300s to make its fantastical story, Gingerbread would distil the savagery of the second world war, the oppression of Stalinist Russia, and one man’s flight from a Siberian prison camp. This would be a fairytale for the twentieth century, exploring that strange no-man’s-land in which real history and legend become one. And, most of all, it would aim to capture a feeling with which we’re all familiar: that moment when, as a child, you suddenly understand that the world is bigger than the walls of your house, your garden, your family and friends; that the real world is much more terrifying and confusing than the world hemmed in by the pages of a story; and that fairytales, for all their comforts and reassurance, have been subtly telling us this all along.
Our Booksellers say: "This is an unforgiving book, as brutal and twisted as the stories that weave through the lives of Alek and his Papa, and yet remains one of the most perfectly beautiful things I have read this year." Becky, Waterstones Bedford
You can Reserve & Collect Gingerbread from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1kyimUK), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1kyim72) or download it in ePub format from Thursday.