Saturday, 8 October 2016

"Where the Monsters Lurk"- a guest post by Garth Nix

I have an affinity with creatures, at least on the page. I like to make up horrible monsters and include them in my stories. Things that walk on spiked feet, striking sparks from stone; monsters made from gravemould and blood; misshapen spirits reemerging from Death; malignant spirits from some terrible ancient time, unwittingly awoken.

Where do these creatures come from? Until I was asked this question, I must confess I’ve never really thought about it. At various points in stories I need monsters, and they always seem to be in my head, waiting to be written down. Or at least the seed will be there, and as I begin to write about them, they grow and become fully-fledged. Fortunately, they are not there until I need them: my mind is not constantly teeming with a zoo-full of terrifying monsters clamouring to be let out.

But even though they do seem to be there when I need to write them, I realize on examination that it’s not as straightforward as that. My subconscious is probably aware of the fact I will need a monster long before my conscious writing brain catches up on it, and the reason one will be there is almost certainly due to the fact that over my entire lifetime I have been equipping myself to be a maker of monsters. Mentally, that is, for literary purposes only. I have refrained from building a secret laboratory in my back garden to recombine insect and human DNA for example, and actually make my own. Honest.

I began, of course, with other people’s monsters. In picture books when I was very young, I particularly liked dragons and bears, and I guess at that age (and to some degree still) preferred it when the creatures turned out to have much nicer and kinder than their fangs and spikes suggested. But not soon after, as I moved on to chapter books and full-sized novels, I wanted stories with monsters who were inimical. Creatures to be defeated, or tamed, or banished. I wanted that growing sense of dread as their presence was hinted at, the thrill of their first appearance, and then the rush of excitement as they were dealt with by the protagonist or their allies.

Many of my first encounters with such monsters came from children’s books about myth and legends, typically from the Greek and Norse myths. I have Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and the magazine Look and Learn to thank for meeting the Minotaur, and Pegasus, the Midgard Serpent, Frost Giants, Medusa and many more.

While I loved these myths and legends, they were often told in a way that made them feel like history. I am fascinated by history and I read a great deal of it, but when I was a child this storytelling technique was often a distancing one. So the creatures of myth and legend were not less alive, but they felt more distant to me than more modern fiction where I could feel that I was with the main character experiencing it all, or in fact, I was the main character, going up against these monsters. Or running away from them, which as I grew older appeared more and more sensible and realistic.

These very identifiable stories of monster experience possibly began for me with The Hobbit, which was first read to me by my parents around the age of six or seven and I started reading it myself to get ahead. I not only identified with Bilbo, but also with the Dwarves and Gandalf. Reading it, I was with them, and I was them, and we were all out on that winding road having adventures, which necessarily including meeting monsters.

The Hobbit also has very distinctive monsters, never just stage pieces rolled out to get an “ooh” from the crowd before they trundle around a bit and disappear. From very early on, we have the Trolls who combine humour with dread (which is quite difficult to do); the goblins who I think embody the fear of hostile crowds (the individuals are not so scary, but en masse it is quite different), a fear greatly magnified by darkness; Gollum, who is both creature and major character; the spiders of Mirkwood, which for an Australian arachnophobe were particularly daunting, again made somewhat easier to cope with by humour; and of course, Smaug, who like Gollum is both a monster and a major character.

Many other books taught me how to make monsters and what to do with them. I’m writing this while somewhat jetlagged after flying from Sydney to Boston, so this is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m bound to forget some important examples, but here are just some of the authors whose creatures impressed me deeply at a young age, and in so doing, inadvertently helped me prepare to make up and use monsters in my own fiction.

Alan Garner for the Brollachan in The Moon of Gomrath, and generally for his creatures that feel very deeply connected to myth and legend.

Tolkien, beyond The Hobbit, for the Nazgul and Shelob, the Balrog, the classic creature of fantasy (so often imitated), the many varieties of Orc, for Sauron himself and more.

Ursula Le Guin, for many things, but for the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea and sequels, as important monster characters, and for the sense of their enormous age and deep connection to the earliest history of Earthsea.

Andre Norton, who across numerous books made monsters that I loved in my childhood reading, but most particularly whatever it was that the archaeological machine in her sci-fi novel Catseye almost brought back from the past, its time shadow, as it were, enough to drive people insane . . . the hint of a monster and the effects of its presence as effective or perhaps even more effective than any description.

There are many more, of course, too many to list or for my jetlagged mind to immediately produce. These books, and others, provided me with something of an apprenticeship in monster-making, and of course began to equip my mind with the tools for storytelling in general.

But in addition to my reading, something else helped me along in my monster-making endeavours. When I was twelve years old, I saw in a games shop a small white box that contained three booklets named Men & Magic; Monsters & Treasure; and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. In other words, Dungeons and Dragons.

I already liked games, and had recently started playing miniature wargames, but these three booklets were a revelation to me, because they were about playing games that were fantasy stories, basically about being in a story. Within a day of reading the rulebooks I recruited five friends from school and we started playing. Perhaps because I’d bought the rules, I was the dungeonmaster, though I suspect it was more to do with my natural authorial tendencies that were already in evidence back then. I wanted to direct the story as much as be part of it.

Dungeons & Dragons, as required for game purposes, gave monsters characteristics. I could look up a creature in Monsters and Treasure and see its armour class, and hit dice, and its attacks values and so on. There was also a brief description, sometimes including special characteristics that were not easily handled by the games’ basic mechanics. In those early days, these characteristics and game mechanics were far simpler than they later became, but in some ways I think that was useful because it gave more leeway to me as a dungeonmaster to use the creatures in my own way and I am glad that even at twelve, I fully took on that the three booklets were a skeleton structure to make something of one’s own, not a restrictive or exhaustive set of rules.

This was made explicit by D&D authors Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but even so, some players and dungeonmasters treated the rules as set in stone.

To me, and most other players, the open nature of D&D and later role-playing games provided enormous scope to develop our own adventures, and one of the main parts of this was, of course, developing new monsters beyond those in the original rulebooks and later supplements (of which there would be a veritable plethora, continuing to this day).

I first started by adapting monsters that weren’t in the rule books, taking monsters and creatures out of my favourite books and working out their characteristics in D&D terms. What I didn’t realize back then, though, was that one of the primary reasons these monsters would work in a role-playing game adventure wasn’t because I’d got their game attributes right, it was because they were already so well-defined and real from the stories I’d got them from (which the players had invariably read as well), so the mere mention of some distinguishing part of their appearance or behavior would lead to the players knowing what they were up against, with the consequent emotional impact derived from the shared experience of the story.

I guess what I’m saying here is that you can work out all the mechanistic details of a creature and its description and so on, as if defining it for a game or an encyclopedia or some data file, but this does not make it come alive and does not make it feel real to either roleplayers or readers. What does do this is story, and the monster’s place in it. In fact, as in Catseye I mentioned above (and in many horror stories), it is quite possible that never actually describing or detailing a monster might make it all the more effective. A reader needs to be provided with just enough information (which might be overt description, it might be character’s reactions to the creature, it might be dialogue, it might be mere allusion) to enable them to imagine the creature themselves, and whatever the reader thinks up themselves will be invariably more terrifying and effective than a huge amount of text from the author.

So, my apprenticeship in monster-making began with reading and continues to this day with reading; later to be enhanced by the once-a-week D&D sessions I ran for a good part of my teenage years; and then continued with writing, as I began to want not just to read stories, and co-create them in an RPG environment, but also to make stories that were my own.

Many fantasy writers begin with their worlds, working them out in a great deal of detail, and often this will include the creation and development of creatures. Sometimes they will be entirely original, sometimes they will be drawn from myth or legend, and sometimes they will be orcs from Tolkien. (Orcs are a very invasive species, it seems, given their ability to infest so many different fantasy books. Sometimes they are called something different, though we all know “that which we call an orc by any other name would smell as foul.”)

Developing the world first is a very effective technique, one adopted by many great writers, but it’s not one that I follow. I tend to discover my fantasy world as I go along, I only work out what I need for the story as I need it, and this also applies to creatures.

So from my very earliest stories, I would be writing away and then all of a sudden I would need a monster, and as I said at the very beginning of this piece, I would usually find one waiting in my head. Or at least the beginnings of one, often just a sense of what kind of feeling I want to evoke with that creature, or perhaps some minor point of physical description. And there I will pause for a while, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few days, while the necessary minimum I need to know about that monster rises to my conscious and can be used in the story. I say the necessary minimum because as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t want to give too much to the reader, I want to supply the catalyst for their imagination to finish creating the monster for themselves.

And now, because I am writing this while on tour for Goldenhand, I’m afraid I must away. Perhaps appropriately to New York Comic Con, where I will see depictions of many monsters, but not I trust, encounter any real monsters lurking within. Which leads to a closely related topic: about how humans are the real monsters . . .

Garth Nix, October 2016

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Be bold, be bold! (But not too bold.)

People often assume there aren’t very many English fairy tales.  There are, of course, but they were eclipsed in popularity by the much better-known German and French tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. During the 19th century the English were, on the whole, keener on translating other peoples’ fairy tales than collecting their own: possibly (as I say in another place) because the Europe-wide fashion for collecting traditional tales was driven by nationalism, and Victorian Englishmen didn’t feel they had anything much to prove. So generations of English children grew up knowing about Rumpelstilskin and Cinderella, and nothing about Tom Tit Tot and Ashie-Coat.  

It took an Australian Jew, Joseph Jacobs, to notice this and do something about it. ‘Who says that English folk have no fairy-tales of their own?’ he asks in the introduction to his 'English Fairy Tales’, 1898. ‘The present volume contains only a selection out of some 140, of which I have found traces in this country. It is probable that many more exist.’
One of those tales is an all-time favourite of mine, ‘Mr Fox’.  It’s the oldest known version of the ‘Bluebeard’ story, and I wrote about it in my recent book ‘Seven Miles of Steel Thistles’, where I explain why I think it’s about a million times better than ‘Bluebeard’. It’s about a girl called Lady Mary who becomes curious – maybe even suspicious – when her fiancé, the suave Mr Fox, is unwilling to let her visit his castle. So when he announces he has to go away for a day just prior to their wedding, she sets off deep into the woods to find the place for herself.

And there it is, a beautiful castle: but above the gateway a strange motto is carved into the stone: ‘Be bold, be bold’. Lady Mary passes under the gateway and into the courtyard. The place is quite empty, not a soul anywhere about. Crossing the yard to the the doorway of the keep, she finds the same motto again, this time longer: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’.  On she goes:

Still she went on till she came into the hall, and went up the broad stairs till she came to a door in the gallery, over which was written:

Be bold, be bold, but not too bold
Lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.

But Lady Mary was a brave one, she was, and she opened the door, and what do you think she saw? Why bodies and skeletons of beautiful young ladies all stained with blood. So Lady Mary thought it was high time to get out of that horrid place…

As she hurries down the stairs she sees Mr Fox himself coming into the hall, dragging a beautiful young woman behind him who seems to have fainted. Lady Mary hides behind a cask, and witnesses Mr Fox cutting off the young woman’s hand:

Just as he got near Lady Mary, Mr Fox saw a diamond ring glittering on the finger of the young lady he was dragging, and he tried to pull it off. But it was tightly fixed … so Mr Fox cursed and swore, and drew his sword, raised it, and brought it down upon the hand of the poor lady. The sword cut off the hand, which jumped into the air, and fell of all places into Lady Mary’s lap. Mr Fox looked about a bit but did not think of looking behind the cask, so at last he went on dragging the young lady up the stairs into the Bloody Chamber.

Lady Mary runs home, but that’s not the end. Next day this self-possessed and steely heroine meets Mr Fox at a splendid family breakfast where the contract of their marriage is to be signed. ‘How pale you are this morning, my dear,’ exclaims Mr Fox. 

‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I had a bad night’s rest last night. I had horrible dreams.’
‘Dreams go by contraries,’ said Mr Fox; ‘but tell us your dream, and your sweet voice will make the time pass till the happy hour comes.’
‘I dreamed,’ said Lady Mary, ‘that I went yestermorn to your castle, and I found it in the woods, with high walls and a deep moat, and over the gateway was written:
               Be bold, be bold.
‘But it is not so, nor it was not so,’ said Mr Fox.

As Lady Mary continues and the mottoes intensify their warnings, so Mr Fox’s denials become stronger: ‘It is not so and it was not so. And God forbid it should be so’ – till finally Lady Mary springs to her feet. 

‘It is so and it was so. Here’s hand and ring I have to show,’ and pulled out the lady’s hand from her dress and pointed it straight at Mr Fox.
At once her brothers and her friends drew their swords and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces.

This is a great story with a brave, intelligent heroine, and it’s beautifully structured. I’ve told it aloud many times to children and they always love it. But where did Joseph Jacobs find it?  Well, he found it as an addendum to Edmond Malone’s 1790 edition of the complete works of Shakespeare ( ‘Malone’s Variorum Shakespeare’). 

This of course isn't the original 1790 edition, which I couldn't find, but from 1821.

There’s a bit in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Act I, Sc 1, where Benedick says to Claudio: ‘Like the old tale, my lord: it is not so, nor ‘twas not so; but, indeed, God forbid it should be so.’  A certain Mr Blakeway contributed a note to explain this reference:

I believe none of the commentators have understood this; it is an allusion, as the speaker says, to an old tale, which may perhaps still be extant in some collections of such things, or which Shakspeare may have heard, as I have, related by a great aunt, in his childhood. 

Mr Blakeway then recounts the whole tale, though with less artistry than Joseph Jacobs: he’s supplying a note, after all, not writing a story:

Over the portal of the hall was written: ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold:’ she advanced: over the stair-case, the same inscription: she went up: over the entrance of a gallery, the same: she proceeded: over the door of a chamber, – ‘Be bold, be bold,but not too bold, lest that your heart’s blood should run cold.’ She opened it; it was full of skeletons, tubs of blood, &c. She retreated in haste…

Blakeway concludes,

Such is the old tale to which Shakspeare evidently alludes, and which has often ‘froze my young blood’ when I was a child. I will not apologize for repeating it, since it is manifest that such old wives’ tales often prove the best elucidation of this writer’s meaning.

John Brickdale Blakeway was born in Shrewsbury in 1765, the eldest son of Joshua Blakeway and Elizabeth Brickdale. He studied law, was ordained in 1793, became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1807 and died in 1826. His great-aunt probably told young John this tale when he was about ten, and she must have heard it in her own childhood some time between say 1710 and 1725.  This is still over a century since Shakespeare’s death, but the story happens to be one which is very easy to remember, full of repetition – the tale is actually told twice – and memorable phrases. (I’ve known children who could tell it well having heard it only once.) In 1598 Shakespeare’s Benedick quotes one of these phrases:‘It is not so and it was not so and God forbid it should be so’, and calls it an ‘old tale’. 

Edmund Spenser’s immensely long narrative poem ‘The Faerie Queene’, references the other quotable quote from 'Mr Fox' in Book 3, Canto XI, verses 50 to 54: when the gallant ‘warlike Maid’ Britomart (allegorically Chastity) is exploring the House of Busirane (the House of Violence and Lust) to find and rescue the enchanter Busirane’s tortured victim Amoret. As Britomart makes her way through room after room decorated with pictures and tapestries of ravished women (and one boy), she notices something else:

Over the door thus written she did spy
Be bold: she oft and oft it over-read…

Just like Lady Mary, Britomart is not dismayed - ‘But forward with bold steps into the next room went’. And just as in ‘Mr Fox’, the castle is silent and empty - ‘Strange thing it seemed’!  Eventually,

…as she looked about, she did behold
How over that same door was likewise writ
Be bold, be bold, and everywhere Be bold,
That much she mazed, and could not construe it
By any riddling skill or common wit.
At last she spied at that room’s upper end,
Another iron door, on which was writ,
Be not too bold

The first three books of ‘The Faerie Queene’ were published in 1596. This therefore appears to be the earliest reference to the ‘old tale’ of ‘Mr Fox’.  It must once have been very well known.  But if John Blakemore hadn’t written it down, it would have disappeared. His account is the only complete source for this English fairy tale. 

I was talking about all this this recently with a good friend, the author John Dickinson (who writes wonderful fantasy and sci-fi): in fact it was he who pointed me in the direction of ‘The Faerie Queene’. He electrified me by telling me that in his local church of St Mary in Painswick, Gloucestershire, the words ‘Be bold, be bold’ are actually cut into one of the pillars. Local tradition has it that the words were carved by one of a group of Parliamentarian soldiers besieged in the church during the English Civil War, and that they are a quotation from ‘The Faerie Queene’. I was so excited about this that John invited me to come over and see the inscription.  And here it is.



Let’s take the first bit first.  In modern spelling: ‘THOU WHO MADE THIS RICHARD FORT BE BOLD BE BOLD BUT NOT TOO BOLD’. Some man named Richard Fort is addressing God (who ‘made’ him) and adding an – appeal? a prayer? a command? a warning? – perhaps to God, perhaps to himself, to ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold.’ 

Painswick Church was indeed besieged in the year 1644. There’s an account in ‘A Cotteswold Manor; being the history of Painswick’ written by the wonderfully named Welbore St Clair Baddeley and published in 1907. In 1644 the countryside around the city of Gloucester (which had survived a siege by Royalist forces the previous autumn) was in turmoil, with Royalists and Parliamentarians exchanging raids and committing atrocities on both sides. Enter the fearsome Colonel Mynne, leading a regiment of Royalist Catholic infantry raised in Ireland. Arriving in Bristol, Mynne and his men stormed their way across Gloucestershire and in February 1644 arrived at Painswick. The Parliamentarian Attorney General, Backhouse, quartered in Gloucester, writes: 

‘We heard … that Colonel Mynne and St Leger with the Irish forces march’t to Painswicke for subsistence,  but indeed to plunder the country, to prevent which, our Governor (Massey) drew out a party of Horse and Foot, where there was a skirmish and some losse on both sides.’ 

Whether this skirmish was successful or not, some time later Mynne’s Royalist forces withdrew and a garrison of Massey’s Parliamentarian troops moved into Painswick. In the back-and-forth of that wretched time, they were not to remain there long. The King’s man Sir William Vavasour marched on Painswick with ‘a strong brigade’ and two ‘culverins’ or light cannons. The Parliament soldiers, who had taken up a defensive position in a house near the church, were not strong enough to hold off anything much bigger than a plundering party, and had been told to make good their retreat down the steep hill towards Brookthorp if the Royalist force was substantial. But the lieutenant commanding them, ‘… not understanding the strength of the (opponents) army’ and encouraged by ‘many willing people of the neighbourhood in that weak hold’, instead of withdrawing, remained to fight. Finding himself overwhelmed ‘upon the first onset’, he deserted the house and took his men into the church. It was a move from the frying pan into the fire: the Royalists burned down the door and threw ‘hand-granadoes’ into the church where ‘some few were slain in defending the place, and the rest taken prisoners.’  [This contemporary account is quoted in the ‘History of the Church of St Mary at Painswick’ by Welbore St Clair Baddeley, 1902]

Here, then, is the likely scenario for the cutting of those words ‘Be bold, be bold, but not too bold’ on the church pillar at Painswick. Richard Fort – whether he was one of the ‘willing’ neighbours or a Parliamentarian soldier – was holed up inside St Mary’s with the other men who were the victims of their lieutenant’s mistake. They’d barred the doors, they couldn’t get out, and they were listening to the yells and jeers of the Royalist force outside in the churchyard – and wondering what would be the next move. 

How long did they have?  Was it really long enough for Richard Fort to carve all those words? And why did they spring to his mind in the first place? Had the lieutenant urged his men to ‘be bold’?  (See what had come of that!) Parliamentarians called Royalists ‘malignants’: Painswick people had already had a taste of the ravening Colonel Mynne. Perhaps two things came together in Richard Fort's head – the adjuration to ‘be bold’, and the enclosed stone trap of the church, with the enemy about to burst in.  Perhaps Richard was an educated man who had read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and remembered the armed figure of Chastity, Britomart, waiting for her enemy, afraid to lay her weapons aside: 

Thus there she waited until eventide,
Yet living creature none she saw appear:
And now sad shadows ‘gan the world to hide,
From mortall view, and wrap in darkness drear.
Yet n’ould she doff her weary arms, for fear
Of secret danger, nor let sleep oppress
Her heavy eyes with nature’s burden dear,
But drew herself aside in sikernesse [assuredness]
And her wellpointed weapons did about her dress.

Or it may be Richard simply remembered the story of ‘Mr Fox’ told to him in childhood by his mother or aunt or sister, and saw its relevance, and began cutting those words to distract himself.  Did he even feel his God had let him down? ‘Thou who made this Richard Fort be bold be bold but not too bold…’ I think he did carve the words while he waited, especially as you can see at the end of the inscription on the pillar the shallow-cut beginning of two more words: ‘AND WHE…’

What was he going to say? We’ll never know. He didn’t have time to finish, so perhaps he was interrupted: perhaps, before he could grind those letters any deeper, the church door began smoking; perhaps it burst into flame. Perhaps these unfinished letters resemble those found in another stone trap, the fictional Chamber of Mazarbul in Tolkien’s ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’:

‘The last thing written is a trailing scrawl of elf letters: they are coming.’

Picture credits

Mr Fox, illustration by John Batten from Joseph Jacobs' 'English Fairy Tales' 
Britomart in the house of Busyrane, by Walter Crane
'Be bold', inscription on pillar, St Mary's Painswick, photo by Katherine Langrish

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Slippers of Glass, Slippers of Fur - on Cinderella's shoes

There are extraordinary numbers of superstitions about shoes - though most are now unfamiliar to us 21st century mortals.  According to Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s ‘Dictionary of Superstitions’, an old shoe hung up at the fireside was thought to bring luck. You turned your shoes upside down to prevent nightmares or to stop a dog from howling; it was unlucky to put your right shoe on before your left; burning a pair of old shoes could prevent children from being stolen by the fairies; bad luck was bound to follow if a pair of new shoes was placed upon a table -- and so on and on. In fact, shoes have often been often hidden within the fabric of buildings, possibly as apotropaic charms to ward off evil.

Here's a photo of a whole collection of such shoes from East Anglia, courtesy of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service. Northampton Museum keeps a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’; in a pamplet written for the museum J.M. Swann describes some of the finds, dating from the early 15th century into the 20th:  

The shoes are usually found not in the foundations but in the walls, over door lintels, in rubble floors, behind wainscoting, under staircases…  shoes occur singly or with others, very rarely in pairs, occasionally in ‘families’ – a man’s, woman’s, and a range of sizes of children’s. Sometimes they are found with other objects – a candlestick, wooden bowl or pot, wine glass, spoon, knife, sheath, purse, glove, pipe… The condition of the shoes, like the objects found with them, is usually very poor: worn out, patched, repaired.

My mother preserved some tiny silver shoes which were used to decorate her wedding cake. Old shoes used to be thrown after the departing bride and groom for luck and I can remember at least once seeing old boots tied to the bumper of the honeymoon couple's car. Maybe this still happens?  It's a practice which goes back centuries. Opie and Tatem quote John Heywood in 1546: ‘For good lucke, cast an olde shoe after mee’ and Ben Jonson in 1621: ‘Hurle after an olde shooe, I’le be merry what e’er I doe.’  Francis Kilvert writes in his diary for January 1, 1873:

The bride went straightway to her carriage. Someone thrust an old white pair of satin shoes into my hand with which I made an ineffectual shot at the post-boy, and someone else behind me missed the carriage altogether and gave me with an old shoe a terrific blow on the back of the head…

Shoes are very personal items. They literally mould themselves to the shape of an individual’s foot. Anyone who’s sorted through the clothes of someone who’s died will know how the sight of a pair of their empty shoes is especially poignant. It’s as if well-worn shoes have almost become part of the person. Perhaps that’s why, as the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould writes in his 1913 ‘Book of Folk-Lore’ :

…when we say that a man has stepped into his father’s shoes, we mean that the authority, position and consequence of the parent has been transferred to his son.

Now to Cinderella. Numerous variants of the Cinderella story (tale type ATU 510A) include the motif of the heroine’s shoe which is dropped or lost and, when restored and matched to her foot, proves her identity and worth.  In Basile’s ‘La Gatta Cenerentola’ or ‘The Hearth-Cat’ (1634) the heroine Zezolla drops a fashionable ‘stilted shoe’ or ‘chopine’ as she escapes from the festa: when she appears at a banquet which the King has ordered for all the ladies in the land, it darts to her foot like iron to a magnet.  Chopines were the platform shoe to end all platform shoes – more like towers than platforms, as you can see below – and must have been extremely difficult to walk in: no wonder Zezolla lost one.  (They're almost incredible, but apparently some were as tall as twenty inches high and you can find out more about them here.)

16th century style Venetian chopine

Perrault’s Cinderella has slippers made of glass, such an improbable material for shoes that some have argued it must be a mistake, a confusion between ‘vair’ (parti-coloured fur) and ‘verre’ (glass).  But really, when has improbability ever troubled a fairy tale?  Aschenputtel’s shoes are golden, Scottish Rashin Coatie’s slippers are made of satin, and in one of my favourite versions, the Irish tale ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’, the heroine Trembling gets the jazziest shoes of all. She asks a henwife (a magical figure in Irish tales) for clothes fit to go to church in. On the first day the henwife obliges with a dress as white as snow and green shoes, on the second she provides a dress of black satin and red shoes, and on the third day Trembling demands: 

“A dress red as a rose from the waist down, and white as snow from the waist up; a cape of green on my shoulders, and a hat on my head with a red, a white and a green feather in it, and shoes for my feet with the toes red, the middle white and the backs and heels green.”

Flamboyant in these fairy colours, riding on a white mare with ‘blue and gold-coloured diamond-shaped spots’ all over its body, Trembling cannot enter the church and has to listen to mass from outside the door, but the king’s son sees her and falls in love.  Racing beside Trembling’s horse as she rides away, he pulls a shoe from her foot and searches all Ireland for the fair lady.  

In a story from China dating to 850/860 AD, the heroine Yeh Xien loses and has restored to her a gold shoe ‘as light as down’, and in what may be the oldest recorded variant of the tale – from the early first century AD – there is still a shoe, or at least a sandal.  It comes in part of an account of the Pyramids by the Roman historian, geographer and traveller Strabo. After describing the Pyramids, he explains that one of them: 

… is said to be the tomb of a courtesan, built by her lovers, and whose name, according to Sappho the poetess, was Doriche. She was the mistress of her brother Charaxus, who traded to the port of Naucratis with wine of Lesbos. Others call her Rhodopis.

A story is told of her, that, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from the hands of her female attendant and carried it to Memphis; the eagle soaring over the head of the king, who was administering justice at the time, let the sandal fall into his lap. The king, struck with the shape of the sandal, and the singularity of the accident, sent over the country to discover the woman to whom it belonged. She was found in the city of Naucratis, and brought to the king, who made her his wife. At her death she was honoured with the above-mentioned tomb.

Needless to say, this isn't true... It may be argued that this story doesn’t fit the Cinderella tale type because Rhodopis isn't downtrodden and neglected, but while downtrodden and neglected heroes and heroines are two a penny, the shoe motif seems to me the distinguishing feature of the Cinderella story. And on this evidence, the tale has been around for at least 2000 years. In some versions – as in Basile’s – the shoe literally leaps to the true owner's foot: ‘[Rashin Coatie] ran away to the grey stone, where the red calf dressed her in her bravest dress, and she went to the prince, and the slipper jumped out of his pocket on to her foot, fitting her without any chipping or paring. So the prince married her that very day…’

And well he might: the fitting of the shoe may actually have been part of the ceremony.  The folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in 1913:

In some French provinces, when the bride is about to go to church, all her old shoes have been hidden away. In Roussillon it is always the nearest relative to the bridegroom who puts on her shoes, and these are new. The meaning comes out clearer in Berry, where all the assistants try to put the bride’s shoes on, but fail, and it is only the bridegroom who succeeds. It was also a custom in Germany for the old shoes to be left behind and the new shoes given by the bridegroom to be assumed. 

What did it mean?  Perhaps many things. If it was traditional for the bridegroom to place new shoes on the bride’s feet, it’s possible he was asserting authority over her, especially since Baring-Gould goes on to add that ‘A harsher way … was for him to tread hard on the bride’s foot, to show that he would be master.’  (There are times when one feels that folk-customs aren’t so charming after all. Hum.) Baring-Gould says,  ‘When in the Psalm [Psalm 60] the expression occurs, ‘Over Edom have I cast out My shoe’, the meaning is that Jehovah extended His authority over Edom.’ So a shoe could be a symbol of dominance, of trampling on someone. But in ‘The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren’ Iona and Peter Opie write, ‘When anyone receives a pair of new shoes the custom is to stand on her toes for luck.’  As with most of human nature and culture, it’s all in the interpretation.

The young man kneeling in front of his bride, touching her ankles as he slides new shoes on to her feet – you don’t have to be a died-in-the-wool Freudian to see something sexy about that, and I bet quite a few young couples enjoyed the frisson of – finally! – permitted, public, personal contact.  But I think there’s more to it.  A very long and complicated Irish tale ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’ contains the Cinderella ‘lost shoe’ motif, but the roles are reversed and it’s the princess who tugs the hero’s boot off as he rides past.  Taking on what we tend to think of as the male role in this story type, she proclaims ‘a gathering of all the men in the three islands that she might see who the man was whom the shoe fitted’.  In this case too, as soon as the hero arrives, ‘The shoe was in her hand, and it leaped from her hand till it went on his foot. "You are the man that was on the pony the day that he killed the piast," the princess proclaims, "and you are the man whom I will marry."’  

Given the very personal nature of shoes – people rarely lend them – and the number of superstitions about them, it seems to me that the shoe in the Cinderella stories is more than something to walk about in. First of all, it’s a status symbol: in all of the stories the shoe is of high quality and made of rare materials. This, in a time when many people had no shoes at all. But it seems to me that it belongs to the heroine in almost the same way as her hair or fingernails do: it fits no other foot, no other person can wear it. The Cinder-girl is identified and revealed through the medium of the glass or fur or brocade slipper because her shoes are a magical representation of her true self. 

What chopines said about Zozolla though -- I don't know!

Picture credits:

Cinderella: Watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Wikimedia Commons 

Concealed shoes, St Edmondsbury: Wikimedia Commons

Miniature silver shoes, author's possession.

Reconstruction of a (moderately high) Venetian chopine in the Shoe Museum, Lausanne: Wikimedia Commons

Rashin-Coatie and the Red Calf, by John D. Batten

Cinderella, by Warwick Goble