The Hare and the Tortoise

Arthur Rackham The Hare and the Tortoise from Aesop's Fables

You win some, you lose some. Aesop was an equal opportunity storyteller and the tortoise of fables sometimes gets a raw deal. But not this particular tortoise. Sometimes it’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, sometimes it’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”. This tortoise just goes about his business and wins the day. I’ve never once heard him complain that he hasn’t been billed first in the title.

How do picture book storytellers expand this well-known fable to flesh out a 32 page story? And how are the tropes in this particular fable replicated across popular story for all ages?

Continue reading “The Hare and the Tortoise”

Tomten Stories For Children

The Tomte is a Christmas creature from Nordic folklore. Tomte is Swedish, and the other Scandinavian countries have their own versions — in Norway known as Nisse. In English, think of your archetypal garden gnome, with his long, white beard and red cap. Tomten also translates as “homestead man”, and some English translators just stick with “troll” for every Scandinavian creature.

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

Saying “The Tomten” doesn’t sit well with bilingual speakers of Swedish and English. Calling tomten “The tomten” is like saying “The the gnome” because the “n” at the end of Tomte already indicates “The”. Likewise with Nisse and Nissen. However, when words are borrowed into other languages, grammar doesn’t come with. Forgive my usage of ‘The Tomten’ and ‘a Tomten’ — English language children’s book publishers have run with it for decades.

Case in point, The Tomten and the Fox is a tomte picture book for children written by Astrid Lindgren, of Pippi Longstocking fame. Harald Wiberg, a Swedish Children’s Book Illustrator, and wildlife artist illustrated an earlier edition. Like any classic tale, there are numerous retellings illustrated by various artists. Belgian artist Kitty Crowther has also illustrated the Lindgren retelling in a more cartoonish, less painterly style, I assume to attract a modern child readership and make it a bit less… creepy.

The creature is straight out of Nordic folklore, and the story itself is based on an old poem by Karl-Erik Forsslund (1872-1941). I can’t easily find this poem, but came across other sources crediting the inspirationalTomten poem to Viktor Rydberg, originally published in 1881. It’s possible that two men both wrote poems about Tomten around this time?

Using Harald Wiberg’s beautiful illustrations, Astrid’s prose version has been adapted for short film. I watched this mid-afternoon, started yawning uncontrollably, then lay down for a very pleasant afternoon nap. Now I’m back, I can tell you that this tale is perfect for putting kids to sleep. Listen to the cadence, which works hypnotically even in English.

My 12-year-old is distracted by the fact that the tomte appears to be wearing a saveloy for a hat, and says it’s the sort of thing they show at school in the library, and everyone goes, “Okay, that was creepy.”


For those still awake, I’d like to point out that the story structure is very similar to that of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise-Brown. A creature or camera moves from place to place or from object to object, seeming to check up on it, with the covert message that everything is fine, because it will still be there, as expected, even after the child wakes up. Whereas Margaret Wise-Brown is confined to a child’s (?) bedroom (the bedroom has a telephone), The Tomten poem guides us gently around a dark and snowy farm. The snow itself functions as a cosy blanket in what might as well be a bedroom.

These lullaby stories are the rare exception to the ‘rules’ of complete narrative. They do satisfy the intended audience, but don’t contain the steps of every other kind of story in the world. Perhaps this is precisely because they are designed to send a child to sleep. Sleep is the ending.


I am not Scandinavian and did not grow up with tomte mythology. My ancestry is Scottish so I was spooked by threats of Wee Willy Winky instead.

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Up stairs an’ doon stairs in his nicht-gown,
Tirlin’ at the window, crying at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now eight o’clock?”

Now that I’m an adult, I code Wee Willie Winky as a pedophilic peeping tom. (If you’ve listened to podcasts about the Golden State Killer, you’ll hear police officers saying that peeping toms are more common than commonly believed.)

The tomte story does not give me the same creepy vibe as Wee Willie Winky. I wonder if I was scarred by Willie as a child. Once I’d been ushered into bed I’d pressed my ear to my pillow. I could swear I heard his footsteps pacing down our gravel driveway. I now know that I was hearing my own blood. No, that’s not creepy at all.

Or perhaps there’s some fundamental difference between Willie and the Tomte. Perhaps Willie’s creepiness comes from his night-gown, which makes him less supernatural, more human. (Then there’s the unfortunate other meaning of ‘wee willie’.)

Is the tomte scary for Scandinavian children? This 1941 short film (in Swedish) has a Noseferatu vibe and I wouldn’t try putting kids to sleep with it. The Tomte can be either cosy or scary, depending on treatment. Same as monsters.

I was basking in the warm glow of a familiar, beloved story from my childhood, they were creeped out that little men might be walking around the house while they were sleeping looking in windows. Matter of fact, one of my boys came and crawled into my bed about 20 minutes ago. Guess that story backfired a little…

Goodreads reviewer

In common with Wee Willie Winky, the Nordic tomte is imagined by artists as peering through windows. Windows, in common with doorways and chimneys, are one of those liminal parts of a house where storytellers of yore imagine all sorts of dangers would rush in at night, killing the entire household.

In the illustrations below, Lennart Helje offsets some of the peeping tom creepiness by showing him peering in at the cat (rather than at the children), who he is able to talk to in cat language. However, tomte stories will also show the little man staring fixedly at sleeping children. That’s what he does, after all.

Lennart Helje (1940)
Postcard (1979) by Lennart Helje tomten, tomte stares at you from a tree
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther 10
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther

There is another man of folklore who penetrates the safe home in winter to visit children as they sleep and that guy is Santa Clause. But Santa is presumably far too busy to hang around and stare at kids. If he’s not delivering presents he’s eating cookies and milk. Santa wears the same red cap, the same white beard as the tomte. The origin folklore clearly overlaps. (No, Coca-cola did not invent Santa as we know him today.) Santa’s red outfit comes from  civil war cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s, who would’ve been influenced by gnomes.

See also: A Pictorial History Of Santa

Santa used to wear all sorts of different coloured coats before everyone settled on red, which had happened by the close of the 1920s. This image is from an article about christmas ornaments in Collectors Weekly. Purple is the liturgical color for the season before Christmas, so this may account for the purple, influenced by the mythical figure of Father Advent. Santa would also wear blue, green and brown coats.


  1. PERIOD — around Christmas time, when the days are very short, the nights very long.
  2. DURATION — over a night time, but repeated. Every night, all winter, every year. This is a cyclical story which conveys the idea that the tomte have been around for a very long time, and will still be around long after we’re gone.
  3. LOCATION — Scandinavia, specifically rural Sweden
  4. ARENA — A storybook farm, with just enough farm animals to keep a family afloat.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — farm buildings and the main house. Traditional Scandinavian farm houses are set up with a specific cosy layout, with buildings forming a mini ‘town square’.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGS — The moon is out, which lights up the arena as if it were daytime. Night-time brightness is reguarly conveyed by illustrators but in Astrid Lindgren’s story, the brightness of the moon is mentioned right there on the page.
Tomten Postcard by Harald Wiberg
Tomten Postcard by Harald Wiberg. Illustrators of children’s stories depict night-time in varying ways. In this case, Wiberg has basically painted as if it’s daytime but made the sky black. This creates an almost luminescent atmosphere.
  1. WEATHER — It has always been snowing in a tomte tale. The snow is crucial to the story because tomte leave footprints. That’s the only clue that they exist.
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
Footprints of The Tomten by Kitty Crowther
  1. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Only the farm technology is crucial.
  2. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. From antiquity, humans imagine every emptiness occupied by higher forms of life ie. fairies. The tomte is a type of fairy, in the broadest sense. Fairies can fall anywhere on the spectrum of morality. This one has an apotropaic (protective) function. Winter is a dangerous time for people living in cold climes, reliant upon keeping their livestock alive. It would be comforting to think that a supernatural creature is keeping an eye on things, even as you sleep.
  3. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The winter is typically symbolic of death, quiet, sleep and contemplation.The Tomten and the Fox revisioning sets up the fox as the real tomte, for people who want an imaginative jaunt grounded in the logic of reality. But a child audience can choose to believe that those footprints belong to the tomte, not to the fox.
The Tomten and the Fox curled up together as one, illustrated by L Helje
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther


So, The Tomten based on the old poem is more lullaby than plot. But Astrid Lindgren wrote a whole collection of Tomten stories. Let’s take a closer look at The Tomten and the Fox (1966), because she beefed the earlier tomten lullaby poem out into a fuller plot. For that reason, it makes a good case study.

Wikipedia summarises the structural difference:

The Tomten

During the night the people at a farm in a forest are asleep. Only Tomten is awake. No one has ever seen Tomten, the people only know that he is there. Sometimes the people only find his small footprints in the snow. Tomten takes care of the animals and gives them comfort through a cold winter’s night. He promises them that spring will be there soon. Tomten also visits the children, who always want to see him. However, they are always at sleep when he comes, so they dream about him.

The Tomten and the Fox

The fox Mickel is hungry and hasn’t found food for a long time. At Christmas Eve he comes across a farm in the forest. He comes into the chicken’s stable and wants to eat a chicken. However, he is stopped by Tomten. Tomten knows how hungry a fox can be in such a cold winter’s night. When a child leaves a plate of groat on the doorstep for Tomten, Tomten wants to share it with Mickel. He tells Mickel that he would share it every night with him if he needs to. Mickel is happy, full and goes back into the forest.



No one knows when he came to the farm, no one has ever seen him, but everyone knows it is the troll Tomten who walks about the lonely old farmhouse on a winter’s night, talking to all the animals and reminding them of the promise of Spring.

marketing copy


The family is vulnerable to predators who come out of the forest at night.


The Tomte has a job and does it well. He protects the farmstead from intruders, not by trickster business and violence but with kindness.


The fox is named Reynard, a trickster archetype from medieval Dutch, English, French and German fables. Readers may know more about him from other stories. Reynard’s main opponent is the wolf. But Reynard is basically synonymous with any fox. In French, renard now means fox.

The fox has come from the woods (the mythical forest) to steal the chickens. Reynard is not just an enemy of the chooks, but also an enemy of the family reliant upon those chooks for food over winter. He may be just a fox, but this is a life and death struggle.


The fox clearly wants to steal some chooks.

The Tomte’s job: to protect the chooks. Tomtes are supposedly vegetarian, I guess. They eat porridge with cinnamon and butter. The Tomte will keep the fox from the chooks by sharing his own porridge.


The gentleness of the lullaby poem is retained. The fox doesn’t resist the tomte’s plan to feed him porridge, to prevent him from eating meat, but the hungry opponent does leave an aperture of doubt by failing to promise that he’ll stay away from the chickens.

The Tomten and the Fox (1966), illustration by Harald Wiberg, a Swedish Children’s Book Illustrator, Wildlife Artist and Author


Any revelation here is for the reader, who is hopefully comforted by the idea that there is a tomte looking out for them overnight.


To give a sense of an ending, a storyteller will frequently pan the camera up into the sky.

What is the morning star?

In general, when Mercury or Venus has a western elongation from the sun, it is a morning star; with an eastern elongation, it is an evening star. Different planets may appear together in the morning or evening sky, depending on their location relative to Earth and the sun.


Not so sure the Tomte’s plan accounts for bloodlust. I’ve kept chooks, unsuccessfully, from foxes.


Partly due to the succcess of Pippi Longstocking, when Astrid Lindgren turned the Swedish poem into prose for children’s picture books, and once that had been translated into English, the tomte stories became more widely known in the English speaking realm. Alongside The Three Billy Goats Gruff, these stories are some of the better known folktales outside Scandinavia.

How has Kitty Crowther made the Tomte more relatable and less creepy? See the illustrations below for the answer.

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther
The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren and Kitty Crowther


Elsa Beskow (Swedish author and illustrator) 1874 - 1953, Tomtebobarnene (Children Of The Forest), c1910
Elsa Beskow (Swedish author and illustrator) 1874 – 1953, Tomtebobarnene (Children Of The Forest), c1910. These tomte are illustrated as regular children with hats that resemble mushrooms.

Hedgie’s Surprise by Jan Brett is another children’s book about tomten.

What Do We Do All Day? has collected a list of Tomte picture books for English readers.

In Trip Trap I created a modern short story by blending Scandinavian mythologies, namely The Three Billy Goats Gruff and a spooky version of Tomten tales.

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)

“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, published by Windmill Books, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1969. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Steig wrote picture books in a comically melodramatic way, which is one way of appealing to the dual audience of children and adult co-readers. Here’s a useful thing about melodrama: The audience can know it’s melodrama but still be moved.

Continue reading “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)”

Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories

The Final Page of The Polar Express

Is fairy land real? Some children’s stories would like us to think so. Their endings contain a ‘wink’, encouraging readers to carry the possibility of fantasy lands with them, even after the story draws to a close. This is one way of achieving resonance. We might argue this is a cheap trick.

Enter Richard Dawkins, who wrote The Magic of Reality partly as an antidote to magical thinking, which he famously despises. His main argument? Reality is far more interesting than anything fiction writers can make up. In this he is probably right.

Continue reading “Fairy Cup Legends In Modern Children’s Stories”

A Country Where You Once Lived by Robin Black

Thomas J. Banks - A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

“A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black (2010) is a great example of a short story in which the present story plays out alongside the backstory of a stand-out inflection point (“fulcrum”) which happened 13 years earlier. Two separate time periods merge into one. Whenever this happens in a story we are reminded that no single moment in time stands in isolation — the present is inevitably affected by the past.

The symbolism of trains, and their connection to the irreversible march of time, and the unforgiving nature of bad moral decisions, is fully mined in “A Country Where You Once Lived”.


Robin Black’s short story is also a great mentor text if you’re creating a narrative with very loose links to a classic tale, in this case  the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  • The main character is symbolically named Jeremy Piper. When an author does this a decision must be made: To point it out in the text or let it be? Ironically, failing to point it out can make it seem trite. Here, Black is sure to point it out: Jeremy imagines the papers having fun with his name were he wrongly convicted of killing his own daughter: Tried Piper Lured Own Daughter.
  • There are children in the story (foetuses) which disappear mysteriously (a series of miscarriages). Zoe, Piper’s daughter, also disappears mysteriously in the backstory.
  • Jeremy’s subsequent estrangement with his daughter is its own kind of child loss, which juxtaposes nicely with the present loss of unborn, unseen children.
  • Jeremy is a scientist by profession. Though rats are not mentioned — they are referred to as ‘animals’ I deduce he performs his mushroom experiments on rats. (Mushrooms are themselves very ‘fairytale’.)
  • Like the Pied Piper, Jeremy is very good at what he does, well-known (within his field).
  • The man Jeremy imagines has abducted his daughter and done vile things is eventually proven to have not existed. There was certainly no Pied Piper Man if children disappeared from the town of Hamelin in the Middle Ages. The man is the representation of whatever it was — plague, crusade, whatever.
  • When Zoe comes home she has transmogrified, as if ‘she has been drained of some essential human moisture’. (She has turned into a kind of rat.)

So while various disparate elements are taken from The Pied Piper legend, it’s as if they’ve been scattered on the table like pick-up-stix and reordered into something completely new.  However, the palimpsest of the legend is still there, and the two stories are thematically linked — both are about the loss of children (and grandchildren).


Below, Robin Black reads about the first third of “A Country Where You Once Lived”. First she explains that the publisher felt strongly that the collection should open with “The Guide”, which happens to be the only story with a man as main character. Robin Black felt strongly that it was strange to open with the story about the man when all her other stories were about women, so to offset this unease she did something a little perplexing to me… she wrote another story about a man! “A Country Where You Once Lived” is the only story written ‘for the book’.  The publishers were happy to wait for it.



Jeremy didn’t cope very well psychologically when his daughter ran away thirteen years ago. (I’m sure the number thirteen would’ve been chosen because of its association with bad luck.) The third person narrator of this story gives no indication that he is reflective to the point where he can see his own part in why she ran away — he has ripped her away from her friends at a time in her life when friends mean everything to her.

His response? To move back to America without his wife and daughter and to start again with a younger woman. His shortcoming is that he still needs some kind of connection with his original wife and daughter.

The reason he finally visits his daughter is to avoid disappointing his new girlfriend, who is probably worried about their fractured relationship for what it might say about him.


Jeremy is in England to meet his daughter’s fiancee. That’s his conscious desire. As part of that, he is hoping to reestablish some intimacy with his daughter. Later, we are told by the narrator that he has come for some forgiveness. The gradual revelation of his desires is designed to match his own gradual realisation regarding what his exact motivation even is.


Zoe is no longer really an opponent — she has matured to the point where a reconnection looks likely.

Jeremy’s opposition mainly comes in the form of his first wife, Zoe’s mother, who is present in Zoe’s life to the point where there’s not really room for Jeremy — or rather, the degree of her caring and emotional labour makes his absence all the more glaring.


Jeremy’s plan is simply to arrive at her house in the country and stay for a while.

Robin Black makes use of a ‘real world fantasy portal’ to signal that Jeremy is now entering a foreign world — not foreign because it’s fantasy but foreign to him because his family is no longer his family:

On either side, anywhere Jeremy looks, vast fields stretch, acres and acres of fields blanketing gentle hills. There are at least three barns in sight and a large half-timbered house right ahead. It is as though they’ve gone through one of those magical gates in children’s stories, into a universe that couldn’t possibly fit into the space concealing it.


Unfortunately, his first night coincides with another of Zoe’s miscarriages. She is whisked away.

But the Battle scene takes place on the train between Jeremy and his first wife, Cathleen, who is concealing something. She is also unmasked in the very same scene — she is heading back to see Zoe, and the pair of them don’t want Jeremy there, though didn’t want to say.


This unmasking forms the basis of Jeremy’s Anagnorisis — that he is now peripheral to his first wife and daughter, and this is the way it will remain. He has no choice but to return to America and form a new life with his new partner.

But he isn’t sad about this. Given the sad nature of the story, his (ironic) Anagnorisis is that he’s actually pretty happy to be moving on.


By re-partnering with the much younger woman and living across the Atlantic from Zoe and Cathleen, Jeremy has given away his opportunity to be part of a multi-generational family in later life. Even if he does start a new family with his 32-year-old girlfriend, he’ll not live long enough to see the children of his younger children.

In the same way, the people of Hamelin lost an entire generation of children. For them it was the end of their society, but Jeremy can still eke out a nice life for himself if he can mentally move on.

Header image Thomas J. Banks – A Country House, in an Extensive Landscape

Giants and Ogres In Storytelling

Jack and the Beanstalk

Giants and ogres are central archetypes in the fairytale cast. Though similar, they’re not exactly the same.


Giants are big. That’s their defining feature. Ogres have a massive appetite. That’s their defining feature, and in true fairytale fashion, their body is an outworking of their inner story. Because of their massive appetites, they also happen to be big.

The songs and stories that feature ogres and cannibal devils and other monstrous eaters raise questions about the very nature of desire and our ways of expressing it: do our appetites make us monstrous?

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Ogre on cover of L'Assiette au Beurre
Ogre on cover of L’Assiette au Beurre

Ogre stories are related to the Oedipal plot, about the big struggle of power between fathers and sons.

Ogre stories are about food and power, about food in the right place and who puts it there, and vice versa. This concern has grown, as monsters have proliferated and their appetites been ever more luridly dramatised, so that fading and monstrosity have begun to coincide in meaning: from the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman

When you think of an ogre you have probably been conditioned via modern narrative to code him male. But go back to antiquity and we find fearsome female creatures who very much fit the description of an ogre.

An excellent example is the reproductive demon Gello. Reproductive demons are coded femme because they concern themselves with wreaking havoc for babies and their mothers. They kill babies, take them, eat them. Gello was thought to have been from the island of Lesbos. She died as a virgin then, because she was cut off in the prime of her life she remained incomplete. The state of incompleteness is a dangerous thing to be. It means you’ll come back and haunt people once you’re dead. So Gello did just that. She hung around as a ghost and ate babies in a rather extreme case of lateral violence.


It’s hard to think of an example of a good ogre, but giants in storytelling are often shown to be not so bad — simply misunderstood, out of place.

Defeated giants inspire a certain patronising affection, as mirrors of a buried and superseded ancestry […] and they enter the comic repertory of entertaining tales. […] Paradoxically, it is the monsters done to death by heroes who survive gloriously, narrated again and again as part of their murderers’ destinies.

Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman
Giants in World Myth

I wonder why Africa and South America are the only continents without widely recalled tracks of giants.

  • Let’s go right back to inferno’s giganti (Virgil’s Dante), who strike terror in the poet. Dante (the character) names Nimrod, who built the tower of Babel. Ephialtes was one of the Titans who rebelled against Zeus. Also, Zeus defeated the Titans with his thunderbolts.
  • In Norse mythology, jots are ‘huge, shaggy beings of a demonic character who dwell in a distant dark chaotic land.
  • The order of the monstrous belongs to a horrible, frightening past. We continue to be fascinated by giants and we like to summon them to mind in the present.
  • Giants and ogres have been superseded in popular storytelling. Though immortal, they’re always in the throes of defeat. However, the story of the big struggles that overthrew them is rehearsed again and again. Often in contemporary storytelling The Corporation stands in for The Giant.
  • Celtic gods, who were supplanted by Christian saints, are a kind of giant.
  • The Nephilim, (from Genesis) are the heroes of days gone by, the offspring of gods coupling with the daughters of men.
  • Atlas (one of the deposed Titans) foreshadows the Catholic giant St. Christopher. Christopher is literally Christo-phoros, the Christ-bearer (suggesting he was big and strong).
  • Further back in time, beings were thought to grow larger than today (we see it in contemporary stories such as Jurassic Park). The New World was imagined as a haunt of giants. (Did people suspect dinosaurs even before dinosaur bones were unearthed?) People imagined men with one eye in the middle of their chests, who shaded themselves from the sun with a single, gigantic foot.
  • Paranormal giants: Yeti, Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yowie (Aboriginal Australia, who goes by a similar description to a Hobbit, with big, hairy feet.)
  • As mentioned, most cultures have giant myths. My home country of New Zealand had Kiharoa and Matua, among others:

There is the story of Kiharoa, a giant of the Ngati-Raukawa and Ngati-Whakatere tribes, who met his death about a hundred and fifty years ago. His stronghold was Tokanui Pa, on the middle hill of the “Three Sisters,” the conical hills which are seen close to the present motor road through the King Country a short distance south of the Puniu River. The story has it that he was twice the height of an ordinary man, and he wielded a hard-wood taiaha of unusual length and weight. He was killed at last when he slipped on some karaka leaves as he fought in a big struggle just outside his pa. His enormous head presently decorated the palisades of Totorewa, a pa of the Ngati-Maniapoto. An excavation for an oven to cook the huge body was made where he fell, and in one’s youth in those parts the “Giant’s Grave,” as it was called, in the fern, was pointed out by the Maori; the spot is close to where the Tokanui Hall now stands at the cross-roads. Two fathoms long and a foot over, is the native word-of-mouth record of Kiha-roa’s height. It may seem slightly exaggerated; but let us be generous and allow that he was at least eight feet.

There was another giant of these parts long ago, one Matau; like Kiharoa, he was a man of the Ngati-Raukawa tribe, and, too, his favourite weapon was the taiaha. He lived on a hill above the Wairaka River, a few miles beyond Orakau. Maori accounts aver that he was eleven feet high.

Legends of the Maori, Victoria University
German Fairy Tales

Jakob Grimm commented that ‘In the giants as a whole, an untamed natural force has full swing, entailing their excessive bodily size, their overbearing insolence, that is to say, their abuse of corporal and mental power.’

Seven-mile boots (or seven-league boots) are an element of European folklore. They allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.

The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT - “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
The Diamond Fairy Book. c.1898. Frank Papé. LILLKORT – “Lillekort with his magic sword struck off the fifteen heads at one blow ”
English Fairy Tales

In The Chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Albion is a mighty British giant, defeated with all his giant cohorts and his brothers Got and Magog, by the founder of London, Brutus. (Albion is most remembered.)

Anywhere you have a child, or young person, dealing with giants, the comparison to Jack (of giant slayer and beanstalk fame), is inevitable

Fairytale News Blog
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

When Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself stranded on the island of Lilliput, he has no way of knowing that this is just the first of his encounters with strange and unknown people, including the giants of Brobdingnag.

In real belief from around this time, giants were thought to exist, and expected to bark like dogs. Some iconic giants even had the heads of dogs. Did you know St Christopher had a dog’s head before he was converted from paganism to Christianity? (Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.) He was depicted as a kind of Anubis, the jackal-headed ferryman of lost souls, from Egypt. Perhaps his hallucinations were inspired by this imagery, but the sixteenth century explorer Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) said he heard giants barking when he sailed past Patagonia.

When Gulliver spoofed the long genre of travel writing, he sure had brilliant material to work with.


Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman  Inspired by the Norse myths, Neil Gaiman takes readers on an epic journey with a boy named Odd and his animal companions as they try to save Asgard, the Norse city of the Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl  Visit a gigantic piece of fruit and the oversized insects that live inside it. One of Dahl’s most well-known stories, this book is a starting point for reading the rest of his works.

The BFG by Roald Dahl This story is more obviously about giants, anthropomorphised. The giants draw on a long history of the cannibalistic ogre. I Kill Giants, the film  

Giants appear frequently in picture books, often as sympathetic outcasts. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, children.”

Giants And Symbolism

Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great shortcoming.

Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Giants are often depicted as hairy.


Mark Hall is an American scholar who has compiled global records of the existence of giants. He argues that gigantopithecus is another species of primate who were largely wiped out by us (as the Neanderthals were). But he also argues a few of them survive to this day. He describes them as we have long described giants in storytelling, conflating them with ogres:

  • cannibalistic
  • primitive
  • huge
  • far-dwelling living in areas inhospitable to humans. (Dahl used this in The BFG.)
The Giant and How He Humbugged America by Jim Murphy

The Cardiff Giant mystery became one of 19th-century America’s biggest scams. See how George Hull fooled the masses when a large statue was uncovered on his farm.

Carnival Castells

Sometimes the risk-taking [of carnivals] is no masquerade but, as in bullfighting, places the participants in real danger: on feast days throughout Catalonia, confraternities form troupes of acrobats to build human castells or towers, living giants composed of eight or more tiers of men, girls and boys climbing one above the other, gripping thighs, backs and shoulders, until at the end the whole perilous edifice is crowned by the anxaneta, a small child who shins up to the pinnacle, which towers 40 feet or more above the ground.

No Go the Bogeyman, Marina Warner

Wilt Chamberlain and André the Giant taking Arnold Schwarzenegger for a stroll

41 Strange (@41Strange) July 28, 2019
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
THE GIANT 1923 by N.C. (Newell Convers) Wyeth, Ladies Home Journal 1923
Andre The Giant

There have always been medical conditions which lead to large physical stature. One of the most famous is French wrestler. Unfortunately, real life ‘giants’ face real life discrimination, the result of millennia of negative storytelling archetyping (aka stereotyping).

Let’s give him the last word, at least.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Legend Or Fairytale?

A version of The Pied Piper cover by Monico Chavez

The Pied Piper is not technically a fairytale. It is at least part legend. Hamelin was a real place, and it is believed that once, in this German town, all of the children really did disappear in a short space of time.

The street in Hamelin, where the children were last seen, is today called Bungelosenstrasse, translated to ‘street without drums’. No one is allowed to dance or play music there. This street is now a tourist attraction — alternatively, you can check it out on Google Earth, though it appears the Google street car has yet to traverse the area.

Any cultural image in which children follow an adult playing music is likely to conjure images of the Pied Piper.


Hamelin is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany. June 26, 1284, is when 130 children left Hamelin. This information comes from a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300 AD. The window no longer exists — it was destroyed in 1660. It’s been written down in chronicles (in Latin language) that June 26 is when the children ‘left’. (Left, not ‘died’ or ‘were taken’.) Nothing else was written down — was it too painful to write more? Even today no one is quite sure why the children of Hamelin disappeared. There are a number of theories.


A creepy Pied Piper illlustration by, I think, a Russian illustrator?

The story of the Pied Piper suggests that the children were ‘taken’ away by the black death or similar, personified in the tale by a man in a pied (colourful) suit. The problem with this theory is that if the children were taken away by the Black Death or similar, surely it would have been recorded somewhere. Mass deaths due to Black Death were recorded elsewhere. In Black Death days, those with literacy skills generally wrote to other towns nearby to warn them of it.

According to Marina Warner, in No Go The BogeymanThe Pied Piper legend warns that the fey and the pied, the eldritch and the elf, are dangerous to humans in their capriciousness. They personify the unpredictable mischief making of fate. The Pied Piper story is dated to 1240 when Hamelin is known to have suffered a similar plague and in several ways its hero prefigured many spectres who come to haunt Germany. Though not devilish or otherwise monstrous the piper appears in the motley sometimes worn by the devil and even more by the fool who mocks truth while the mountain, which uncannily opens when he plays in order to swallow the children, is the familiar habitat of elves and deserves and giants and other messengers from the dark side.


It’s perfectly reasonable to think there was no human figure leading the children away, that it’s all metaphor. Throughout history there is evidence a persistent cognitive bias — humans have a tendency to find meaning in the universe by imputing agency to events that might as plausibly or more plausibly  be due to chance.

A better documented historical example are the French famines. Under the old regime, the population could never accept that nature was solely responsible for the dearth. The general assumption was that people were hoarding grains somewhere, driving the prices up. The actual cause, we are sure now, was a bad harvest. This particular conspiracy theory is known today as the Pacte de Famine.


However, there may have been a person involved. Another theory involves children taken away for The Children’s Crusades. In this story, dating from the Middle Ages, young, charismatic cult leaders convinced children to take Holy vows with the aim of ridding the land of Muslims. They needed kids to do it because they had ‘not yet sinned’. However, there’s no evidence of any children ever reaching the Holy Land. We don’t know how much of this legend is true. The crusades were almost certainly much smaller than legend has it. There remains no evidence that Nicholas the Crusader ever came to Hamelin to recruit.


It is possible the children of Hamelin became part of a Pagan cult. Germanic Paganism was in its death throes in 1284, so they may have become victim to some cult leaders who were desperate to revive the pagan way of thinking. The summer solstice is celebrated around that time of year, though a bit earlier those days (around June 20-22).


Others have suggested it was a ‘dancing plague’. For more on that look up Choreomania.  There are plenty of stories of dancing mania in Germany at this time. One group of people even managed to break a bridge after too many were dancing on it at the same time. Injuries were sustained. Holland and France also has reports of choreomania.


But there may be another reason an entire generation of children disappeared at once — the town may have been ransacked, with the children taken away as indentured slaves or married off elsewhere. This is not unheard of in history, and the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria overnight in April 2014. The Pied Piper could be a based on a terrible news story similar to that one.


In early, 1400s versions of the Pied Piper tale there was no mention of rats. Of course, by the time Robert Browning turned it into a poem, rats seemed vital to make the story work.

Why and when did the rats come into the story? Rats were a problem in every town and city throughout the history of cities. They’re still a problem today. Rats have often represented the worst of humanity since they thrive in urban environments we’ve come to associate rats with other urban ills such as crime and overcrowding and disease.

The Ratcatcher is a fairytale in its own right. The Brothers Grimm recorded The Ratcatcher (in 1839) which is separate from The Pied Piper, also collected. There are no disappearing children in this fairytale. Instead, it is much more concerned with a magician who can charm rats. A Danish version of the tale similarly elevates the role of the ratcatcher to an almost godlike status. In the Grimm version of The Pied Piper, the children are taken through a portal into Transylvania (a spooky country where vampires live). At this point in history Transylvania lay dormant. Good land was going to waste. Other places such as Germany were overpopulated and starving. This leads us to another theory: Many Germans settled in places such as Transylvania during this time. They would drum up volunteers to go with them. Is it possible that the children of Hamelin disappeared because they were taken by fellow townspeople migrating? By people who needed young, healthy workers? Perhaps the parents even sold the children, or at least gave them permission to leave, knowing that starvation was the other option. They may have been led away by a persuasive, military march. Perhaps people joined this march without too much in the way of thought. Hunger is a strong motivator.

It looks like the fairytale of The Ratcatcher (as collected by the Grimms) combined over time with the real story of the missing children of Hamelin and now we have a fairytale/legend hybrid. This seemed to happen in the 15th century. By the mid 16th century they seem permanently intertwined. The first written version of The Pied Piper was penned by a guy with the wonderfully fairytale name of Count Froben Christoph von Zimmern, and that included the rats.

After it was re-written in German a couple of times (including by the Grimm Brothers of course) Robert Browning wrote a considerably more cheerful version. By the mid 1800s, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin is truly mythic.


Below: You probably recognise whose these illustrations are by. Arthur Rackham.

classic illustration of the pied piper street scene

Illustrator Errol Le Cain chose a similarly limited, warm palette.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Errol Le Cain
by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper illustration by Errol Le Cain
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Oskar Herrfurth
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
Pied Piper by Henry Justice Ford
If you recognise the illustrator, let me know.


Robert Browning’s version, and similar adaptations. This is the version you probably know. This is the one I grew up with.

I have realised in the writing of this blog that I have a harder time working out the ‘main character’ of fairytales than I do of modern stories.  Every now and then in a modern story you find the ‘main character’ is actually an ensemble cast a la Little Miss Sunshine or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Winnie-the-Pooh, in which each member of the cast represents a different facet of human nature. Fairytales are like that, I think. Normally we can ask ourselves: Which is the character who changes the most? That is your main character. But what if, as in this legend, an entire town changes forever?

In this case, unusually, The Town is the main character, but the town is personified by the men who run it.


The town is overrun with rats. This surface level problem will highlight the inadequacies of the town.


The town wants to get rid of the rats. But then the desire shifts. For the second part of the story, the men who run the town don’t want the town to fall into poverty by paying what they promised.


Well, there are the rats of course. But these rats are not the slightest bit anthropomorphised, so let’s treat them like any other natural phenomenon such as a tsunami, earthquake or flood.

The Opponent is the embodiment of all that is wrong with the town council. (Some see the Pied Piper as the personification of death.) He appears in the form of a piper in a long, brightly coloured gown. It’s significant that it’s ‘pied’, because this means he’s pieced it together out of bits of rag. In an era where clothes were clear signifiers of wealth (due to the expense of clothing), the ragtag clothing suggests someone wearing a mask — a duplicitous person who pretended to be more important than he was.

The Pied Piper is the subcategory of False Ally Opponent because at first he helps the town. However, his motives are revealed to be entirely selfish. He is just as morally lacking as the town council who refuse to pay him. He sacrifices the lives of an entire town’s worth of children, collateral damage.

Or is he? Do you come down on one side or the other? The tale of The Pied Piper endures partly because it asks us to think about the nature of altruism. Is the Pied Piper an altruist?

To be genuinely altruistic an action has to satisfy two conditions:

  1. Proactive not reactive
  2. Anonymous (not clear cut when God comes into it, because in some cases the agent believes God is watching)

The Pied Piper was proactive. He wasn’t asked to save the town — he offered. However, he is a businessman. He’s doing it for money. So he is quasi-proactive.

He’s not anonymous. He could have simply gotten rid of the rats without telling anyone, expecting nothing in return.

But what if the Pied Piper was starving and needed payment in order to eat? Does that change our calculation of his altruism? The modern leftie view is that all people deserve a living wage, and the modern right-wing view is that people who contribute a lot to a society deserve a very large living wage. So according to any point along the modern political spectrum, the Pied Piper should garner some sympathy.


The Pied Piper is depicted by illustrators in a number of different ways, largely dependent on the era. The unifying feature is of course his clothing, but we can group his body type into a few distinct categories.


Most recently we have ‘hot’ pipers.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin play El Flautista de Hamelin

But he’s more traditionally very skinny, with pointed feet, nose and hat, and long fingers. See Errol Le Cain’s version (above), which may have influenced character design in Shrek.

Why all the skinny, pointed representations? I suggest the illustrators see the Pied Piper as a symbol of death — whereas he does have skin, he is nevertheless a skeletal/skeleton figure, not so different from many depictions of the grim reaper.

the Pied Piper from Shrek
from the Shrek franchise

Eleanor F. Brickendale (who died in 1945) even made him slightly androgynous — he could almost pass for an old woman.

The Pied Piper old woman


Promise to pay the piper and then not pay him. We don’t know if this is because the town can’t pay him or they won’t. It is implied they simply will not, but if the town has suffered famine for an enduring period, it’s also likely they cannot pay him.

Would you have lied to the piper in order to save your town? This is similar to the moral dilemma posed by philosophers: If you were dying and a drug company possessed a drug that would keep you alive — but they charged so much you couldn’t afford to buy it — would you steal it?


In the Robert Browning poem, the Battle is dramatised with the scenes between the Pied Piper and the council.

The death big struggle takes place off the stage, when the piper drowns all of the children.


Oh. We should have honoured our promise. (Audience: honour your promises. Retribution is often way out of whack with your original misdemeanour.)

The mid 1800s were an era which favoured retributive justice, so Browning would have written his poem influenced by this idea: That if someone does not honour their promise, you are fully justified in meting out retribution. However, he would have been influenced by the ‘eye for an eye’ idea. That phrase is often mistaken today to mean, “If someone takes your eye, feel free to take theirs.” It’s actually an expression urging moderation — “If someone takes your eye, do not take both of theirs — you may take only one in return.” (In other words, don’t go batshit when dishing out punishment.)

So the Pied Piper’s actions, killing all the children, will have been seen by the 1800s audience — as they are today — as completely over the top evil.


A town with no children. The town of Hamelin is no longer on the map — the children are a community’s future.



I wrote a re-visioning of The Pied Piper. It’s called “The Magic Pipe“. I wondered when, exactly, children became immune to the music. Did it happen overnight? Adolescence takes a while. There must have been a group of adolescents or young adults who heard it but faintly, sufficiently conscious of the draw of the music to perhaps resist it. What would that story look like?

The Amazing Bone by William Steig

The Amazing Bone cover

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above):

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.



Pearl the pig is an Anne of Green Gables character — dreamy and optimistic despite the hardships she endures.

Steig opens the story with, “It was a brilliant day, and instead of going straight home from school, Pearl dawdled.” This will remind you of Little Red Riding Hood, no doubt. The Grimm Brothers transcribed that tale at a time when, as properties of men, women and girls were required to be inside the house. If anything happened to them while they were enjoying the outdoors, it was their own damn fault.

As a pig, she is also delicious. Even in 2017 we’re getting a whole heap of ‘I Love Bacon’ memes through our feeds, so most people can relate to a pig’s predicament. Not that children will be thinking along these lines at all. But to this modern reader that is her main shortcoming in the story — she is delicious to foxes. She becomes a victim through no psychological or moral shortcoming of her own.

It does pay to remember, though, that this was not the intention in early iterations of the Red Riding Hood category of tales, which existed to punish girls for stepping outside, and blamed them for the evil predilections of men, while also being saved by them.


Pearl wants to enjoy her day outdoors. Steig gives us quite a lengthy introduction — longer than modern picture books allow for — in which we see her ‘dawdling home’ sequence.

Finally we see her at her most relaxed, sitting in the grass and dreaming.

Pearl in the forest The Amazing Bone

Note the pacing of this first section of the story (encompassing Pearl’s shortcoming and desire and her ‘normal life’ (which we know is about to be disrupted. We see one scene per page. In fact, this scene is a double spread. Later, as the excitement picks up Steig will put two pictures on each page. This is the illustration equivalent of using short sentences after long, languorous ones.


Pearl’s ally is introduced before her opponent is introduced, which has the useful effect of creating tension in the audience, who will wonder if this amazing bone is really on her side or if it is a fake-ally opponent.

When we meet the bone we also meet the catch phrase of the story: “I don’t know, I didn’t make the world.” This is somewhat metafictive as Steig’s lampshading requires the reader to wonder about the origin of magic in the story. We are reminded not to worry about all that — Steig is taking overt artistic licence to do any unexpected thing he likes. This works very well because of the long history of fairytales. The ones which have survived are not all that ‘quirky’ — they are full of witches and forests and ogres and magic creatures, but not pieces of magic creatures. There is no logical reason for Steig to have written a story starring a magic talking bone and although readers will happily accept a magical witch or something, he gets quite a lot of mileage out of the fact that this bone can talk even though it doesn’t have lips.


The bone explains that he has been dropped by a witch and would prefer to live with the youthful, optimistic Pearl, so they set off home. Pearl knows what her parents will say — they’ll say it’s ridiculous that she has a bone which can talk — more lampshading to humorous effect.


Of course the opponents appear at this point from behind a rock. They are wearing masks from Japanese theatre, which I agree are the most freaky looking traditional masks out there.

The characters with the long  noses looks like tengu. They’re a kind of supernatural creature, part human, part bird or prey.

The middle creature in yellow might represent a hannya, This character is possibly the most ridiculously misogynistic of the Noh masks, expressing the fury of a woman turned demon through jealousy and anger and who revenges by attacking.

(These days I feel the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask has supplanted traditional Japanese masks in the West when it comes to freak value. Ghostface is also very scary — perhaps we will not be seeing these in a picture book anytime soon.)

These masked creatures are not the main opponent, however. They are just part of the landscape, reminding Pearl and reminding readers that even in an environment which looks beautiful and safe, evil can jump out from anywhere. These characters are easily scared off by the talking bone in Pearl’s handbag, which they are trying to steal from her, and although we never see their identities, if you look closely at the illustration you’ll probably agree with me that these ‘highway robbers’ are meant to be dogs. Dogs, compared to canines from the wild, are usually fairly hapless criminals, both in real life and in storybooks.

This is when the real opponent turns up. This time the bone’s talking won’t spook him. We know it won’t spook him because of Aesop. Foxes are smart, unlike dogs.

The wily fox was not as easily duped as the robbers. He saw no dangerous crocodile. He peered into Pearl’s purse, where the sounds seemed to be coming from, and pulled out the bone. “As I live and flourish!” he exclaimed. “A talking bone. I’ve always wanted to own something of this sort.”

(Note that Pearl herself is an ironic Aesopian character. Traditionally, we expect pigs to be dirty and gluttonous, but Pearl is delicate and refined. Dr Seuss does a similar thing with Horton the elephant, who would normally break a tree by sitting in a nest. We see Horton’s bulk and don’t immediately expect him to be timid. Young readers learn not to judge characters based on their appearance.)

The fox is a smartness proxy for the audience. Indeed, when I read this story to my daughter she exclaimed, “Oh, I wish I had a talking bone!” just as the wily fox had done in the story.

The fox takes Pearl home for dinner, where he plans to eat her of course. He locks Pearl and her bone in the basement.

At this point we wonder how on earth Pearl and the bone are going to get out of their dire predicament. Plotting-wise, this is the difficult part for the writer. The writer must come up with some ingenious plan which surprises the reader.

Humour wise, this is the highlight of the story. Pearl and the bone whisper to one another, which gives a read-aloud narrator some welcome variety — not enough picture books encourage stage whispering — and their conversation is alternately melodramatic versus reminiscent of two girls sitting outside the principal’s office rather than about to meet their death:

“I know how you feel,” the bone whispered.

“I’m only just beginning to live,” Pearl whispered back. “I don’t want it to end.”

“I know,” said the bone.

At this tense point Steig uses a technique called the dynamic frame. The dynamic frame is film-making terminology butis even more common in picturebooks than it is in film. Filmmakers who use dynamic frame change the size and shape of the image on the screen. It has gone out of fashion in filmmaking. You still see it in contemporary films when shooting through doorways, for example, so hat the lighted area seen by the audience is shaped, even though the shape of the screen itself doesn’t change.

An example of the dynamic frame in a picturebook

For another example of this technique in a picture book see Hyman’s Sleeping Beauty, with views through the arches. In Where The Wild Things Are, the pictures gradually grow in size and then become smaller.

This part of the story will probably remind you of Hansel and Gretel more than Little Red Riding Hood, as the fox cranks up the stove ready for Pearl to go in.


Rather lazily, in storytelling terms, Steig’s amazing bone can do magic. It comes out with a number of magical phrases and the fox gradually shrinks to the size of a mouse, retreating into a hole in the wall.

However, it totally works. Steig gets away with ‘rescued by magic’ because of the dialogue. The bone is just as amazed as Pearl at his ability to get them out of trouble, and the joke has been set up earlier with the gag that bones couldn’t possibly talk because they don’t have mouths.

“Well, what made you say those words?”

“I wish I knew, “the bone said. “They just came to me. I had to say them. I must have picked them up somehow, hanging around with that witch.”

It’s the haplessness and the understatement which leads to the humour.


“You are an amazing bone,” said Pearl, “and this is a day I won’t ever forget!”

This is an uninspiring line but a necessary one. Sometimes you need those lines in stories. I’m going to call it the ‘overt revelation’, but it’s not a genuine one. The fact is, humorous picture books don’t actually need a anagnorisis. We hope that Pearl will not suffer from PTSD. We hope that she will go on just as before, frolicking in meadows and enjoying herself.

The audience does have a small revelation — Pearl was absolutely right about what her parents would say about her bringing home a talking bone. Naive as she is, Pearl does have insight into human behaviour, at least when it comes to her own parents.


The bone stayed on and became part of the family. It was given an honored place in a silver tray on the mantelpiece. Pearl always took it to bed when she retired, and the two chatterboxes whispered together until late in the night. Sometimes the bone put Pearl to sleep by singing, or by imitating soft harp music.

Anyone who happened to be alone in the house always had the bone to converse with. And they all have music whenever they wanted it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.


The Amazing Bone: Scrabboonit! from We Read It Like This

Home » fables legends

Myths, Fairytales, Legends and Other Similar Terms

Under the broad term traditional literature are beast tales, cumulative tales, fables, fairy tales, folktales, fractured tales, Jataka tales, legends, myths, noodlehead tales, pourquoir tales, tall tales and trickster tales.

TRADITIONAL LITERATURE from A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka


Myths are first and foremost about creation: why the earth/sea/day are as they are, who runs the world and how. Myths explain the otherwise inexplicable.

Every myth contains multiple timelines within itself: the time in which it is set, the time it is first told, and every retelling afterwards. Myths may be the home of the miraculous, but they are also mirrors of us. Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth.

Pandora’s Jar, Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

Myth In Western Children’s Literature

Myth as such is absent in the history of Western children’s literature. Unlike literature, myth is based on the belief of the myth bearers; when this belief disappears, the myth ceases to be a myth. Since children’s literature emerges long after Western civilization had lost its traditional mythical belief, this stage is not represented in children’s fiction.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature

Myths attempt to explain the beginning of the world, natural phenomena, the relationships between the gods and humans, and the origins of civilization. Myths, like legends, are stories told as though they were true. Myths are narrative projections of a culture’s origins, an attempt by a collective group to define its past and probe the deeper meaning of their existence. With complex symbolism, a myth is to a culture is what a dream is to an individual. Picture book examples are Atalanta’s Race: A Greek Myth (1995), illustrated by Alexander Koshkin; King Midas: The Golden Touch (2002), illustrated by Demi; Hercules (1999), illutrated by Raul Colon; and Cupid and Psyche (1996), illustrated by K.Y. Craft. Creation myths emerge from a culture’s desire to define creation and bring order to the universe. Picture book examples of creation myths include Moon Mother (1993), illustrated by Ed Young; The Star-Bearer: A Creation Myth From Ancient Egypt (2001), illustrated by Jude Daly; Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden (2005), illustrated by Jane Ray; and The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1993), illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka


Are the traditional tales of the people. Folktales are often fairy tales, but not always. Folk indicates the origin of the story, while fairy indicates its nature.

Folktales feature common people, such as peasants and farmers, and commonplace events. Characters are usually flat, representing an everyman or everywoman. Folktales have tight plot structures, filled with conflict. Cycles of three often appear in folktales. Elements of magic or magical characters may be incorporated, but logic rules, so the supernatural must be plausible and within context. Picture book examples of folktales include The Little, Little House (2005), illustrated by Jessica Souhami; Hansel and Gretel (1984), illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky; Koi and the Kola Nuts: A Tale from Liberia (1999), illustrated by Joe Cepeda; and Rhinos for Lunch and Elephants for Supper! (1992), illustrated by Barbara Spurll.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka

Beauty and the Beast is understood as a literary fairy tale, written down by a specific individual. But like many modern(-ish) stories, Beauty and the Beast has its origin in folktale. Folklorists devised a way of categorising folk tales. It’s called the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of international folktales. Beauty and the Beast is of tale type 425C, a variation on the tale-type known as The Search For The Lost Husband. Cupid and Psyche likewise fits into this category.

Both tales include:

  • a meeting between a beautiful girl and a supernatural or enchanted groom
  • their separation as a result of the beautiful girl’s transgression
  • reunion at the end

The stories make use of different characters, symbolic objects and motifs, but the basic plot is the same. This is representative of how folktales evolve and interconnect.

Yevgeny Rachyov (1906 - 1997) 1955 The Wolf's Song Ukrainian folk tale Illustration for a vintage Soviet postcard
Yevgeny Rachyov (1906 – 1997) 1955 The Wolf’s Song Ukrainian folk tale Illustration for a vintage Soviet postcard

When illustrated, folk tales tend to incorporate folk art techniques. Ivan Billibin and Viktor Vasnetsov are big names in Russian folktale illustration.

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) 1900 Illustration for the Russian folk tale Vasilisa the Beautiful
Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942) 1900 Illustration for the Russian folk tale Vasilisa the Beautiful

Russian folklorists have their own approach to the study and classification of folktales. Afanas’ev and Fyodor Buslaev are big names in this area of study. During the 19th and early 20th century, these guys interpreted folktales as remnants of ancient myths.

Dmitry Zelenin, Nikolai Onchukov and others took a different route again. They collected Russian folk tales to highlight the abject poverty of the citizens who told them.

Iu. M and B.M. Sokolov published a two-volume collection of folktales from the White Lake area. Alongside the collections of Afanas’ev and Onchukov, this is considered a great achievement in folklore.

More recently, you may have heard of Vladamir Propp. His book Historical Roots of the Wondertale (1946) has been influential. Propp has influenced Elena Novik, Irina Razumova and Elena Shastina.

Musical composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Pyotr Il’ich Tchaikovsky have been influenced by Russian folklore and fairytale.

This also applies to filmmakers such as Aleksandr Rou.


Fables are short prose pieces or verse with a moral ending. The characters are animals and other inanimate objects that take on human characteristics, such as talking and expressing emotions. The form is generally ascribed to Aesop, who developed it in the sixth century BC. Aesop’s fables are very well known in the West. Other famous fables include the Panchatantra, a collection of fables written in Sanskrit. Picture book examples are Fables (1980), illustrated by Arnold Lobel; Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop’s Fable (1987), illustrated by Wendy Watson; The Lion and the Mouse (2000), illustrated by Bert Kitchen; and The Ant and the Grasshopper (2000), by Amy Lowry Poole.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka

See also: The Difference Between Folklore and Fables


Are stories of magic, set in the indefinite past, incorporating traditional themes and materials. Often about giants, dwarfs, witches, talking animals, a variety of other creatures  — good and bad fairies, princes, poor widows etc. In fact, there is a standard cast of characters who appear in fairy tales.

Some fairy tales are ancient; others are modern. The tradition of the modern fairy tale began with Uncle David’s Nonsensical Story in Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House.

More on fairytales.


Legends are about the achievements of real or imaginary heroes — battles from long ago. The term originally referred to the biography of a saint. There’s a German language cognate ‘legende’ which refers to that narrower use of the term, but in English, folklorists now use ‘saint’s legend’ if they mean specifically the life and times of a (Christian) saint. The word for a saint’s biography is ‘hagiography’. This genre emerged in the fifth century, and stories were designed to provide a direct link between God and the common people, with the heroism of saints as models for how to live a good life. If you lived through the middle ages and Renaissance, you would’ve been subjected to a lot of stories about saints. The most famous of those was The Golden Legend (Legenda aurea), put together by Jacobus de Voraigne c 1260.

Today, a legend doesn’t have the religious connotations.

Eric Fraser cover art for Henry Bett’s English Legends, published in 1950 by B. T. Batsford
The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (A Giant Golden Book Deluxe Edition) - adapted by Anne Terry White, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (1964)
The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (A Giant Golden Book Deluxe Edition) – adapted by Anne Terry White, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen (1964)


Is a modern form, belonging to the age of the novel. There are many different subcategories of fantasy. Fantasy overlaps with fairytales, though fantasy tends to be long while fairy tales are brief. Fantasy has tended to be a British speciality, at least in the 19th Century. Fantasy from newer countries has gone more for stories about contemporary life, though globalisation means any regional distinction is now less marked.

Fantasy took off in the decade of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and The Water Babies. (1865 and 1871.)

— for more see John Rowe Townsend, Written For Children

See also: Evaluating Fantasy in Children’s Literature


Beast tales feature animals that behave like humans. This type of folktale can be either serious or funny. Unlike fables, there is no explicit moral to the story in a beast tale. Examples of beast tales are “The Three Bears“, “Henny Penny,” and “The Three Little Pigs“. The animals embody various human traits; this feature is also known as anthropomorphism. In a beast tale the animals interact with humans, but the humans are secondary characters. Picture book examples are The Three Little Pigs: An Old Story (1988), illustrated by Margot Zemach; The Bremen Town Musicians (2007), illustrated by Lizbeth Zwerger; and Henny Penny (1979), illustrated by Paul Galdone.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books by Denise I. Matulka

The Influence Of King Arthur

A good place to start with a King Arthur story is with “The Legend of King Arthur”, read aloud at the 1001 Classic Short Stories and Tales podcast.

Henry Gilbert, King Arthur's Knights (1911), illustrated by Walter Crane
Henry Gilbert, King Arthur’s Knights (1911), illustrated by Walter Crane
Charles Ernest Butler - King Arthur 1903
Charles Ernest Butler – King Arthur 1903

Was King Arthur A Real Person?

King Arthur is a fabled British leader, said in medieval tales and chronicles to have ruled over England and defended it against Saxon invaders following the withdrawal of the Romans in the fifth century. But at the start of the Dark Ages, when the island was under constant threat of invasion, and at various other troubled moments in their history, the inhabitants of Britain longed for a strong leader who could  unite their fragmented regions under one rule and enable them to defend themselves. Hence the legend of King Arthur, the saviour king, was hugely appealing, its popularity spreading over the years, thanks especially to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History Regnum Britanniae (‘History of the Kings of England’), written in about 1136, and to Thomas Malory’s Le MOrte d’Arthur, published in 1485.

Largely thanks to Malory, the legend of King Arthur was integral to the medieval conception of English history, but with the waning of the Middle Ages came a lessening of belief in the story. While the stories continued to be popular, their truth was disputed. The sixteenth-century humanist scholar Polydor Vergil famously rejected the idea of a post-Roman Arthurian empire, calling it a fabrication — much to the horror of Welsh and English antiquarians.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel, in a discussion about the nursery rhyme Good King Arthur.

Features Of Arthurian Stories

Arthurian retellings are generally considered Historical Fantasy (or myth, depending) because there is a lot of magic, so the events aren’t anywhere near believable.

One of the most popular contemporary King Arthur series is the Avalon series by Marion Bradley. Neopaganism also gave King Arthur stories a modern resurgence.

Arthurian Settings

Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)
Thomas Malory, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485) illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1917)

The Wild is any place knights have to go to prove themselves, usually to the woods or to the mountains.

These settings stopped being so useful after a while, because Victorian writers transformed woods and mountains into pleasant settings. So now storytellers writing Arthurian tales decided to give their heroes less naturalistic settings.

One example is The Dark Tower in a poem/ballad written Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (a Victorian fairy poem, and O.G. To T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Things Associated With King Arthur

  • The search for the Holy Grail — the Holy Grail is a sacred cup thought to have been used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Sir Galahad found it but died on his way back home (to cut a long story short). The Holy Grail is related to the category of fairy tale known as Fairy Cup Legends.
  • The magic sword of Excalibur — before he expired Arthur threw his sword into the lake. A hand appeared in the waves and caught it.
  • The Knights of the Round Table
  • Merlin (his ally)
  • Camelot (a perfect community created by himself)
  • Guinevere (Arthur’s wife)
  • Morgan le Fay (Arthur’s older half sister) — the aristocratic evolution of the category of fairy who leaves a silver coin in the shoes of tidy maids. Arthur’s enemy, basically. This character was re-visioned as a feminist in the 1970s by Marion Bradley in Mists of Avalon. However battered and bruised she gets, she rises again like a Phoenix, the O.G. Strong Female Character. But she isn’t especially skilful, just resilient. For example, her spells rarely work. In The Once and Future King series by T.H. White Morgan le Fay is a witch archetype out of Hansel and Gretel, who tries to build a castle out of milk and pork hoping to attract children.
  • Sir Lancelot (one of Arthur’s knights and Guinevere’s lover)
  • Brave Sir Galahad (the best and purest of King Arthur’s circle, the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot)
  • Elaine (Galahad’s mum, daughter of King Pelles, employs a sorceress to help her appear in the likeness of Queen Guinevere to trick Lancelot into bed with her)
  • Mordred — Arthur’s nephew. Mordred murdered Arthur by sword.
  • The Isle of Avalon — After Arthur was killed a barge happened to pass by on a lake. Three women, one of whom is Morgan le Fay, take him to the Isle of Avalon. Some legends say Arthur died on Avalon. Other legends say he’s sleeping in a cave somewhere. He’ll wake up at England’s greatest need. (If not for Brexit, when, though?)
John Mulcaster Carrick - Le Mort d'Arthur
John Mulcaster Carrick – Le Mort d’Arthur
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin  (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Merlin illustration by Francis (Frank) Godwin (1889-1959). From King Arthur and His Knights, 1927
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) "The Death of Arthur", 1910
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) “The Death of Arthur”, 1910


The best known of these is probably ‘The Holy Grail’ by Robert de Boron, but since the grail is such an important symbol in the Arthurian stories, there are more than one.

  • The Story Of The Grail by Chrétien de Troyes (a poem). It was never finished, actually.
  • Various continuations of that poem written by other people
  • A German story called Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach
  • There’s a Welsh story
  • etc

Basic Plot of a Grail Legend

  • Joseph of Arimathea acquires the chalice of the Last Supper to collect Christ’s blood upon his removal from the cross.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison, where Christ visits him and explains the mysteries of the blessed cup.
  • Upon his release Joseph gathers his in-laws and other followers and travels to the west, and founds a dynasty of Grail keepers that eventually includes Perceval.


The Grail Legends are full of sexual symbolism.

A knight, usually a very young one whose “manhood” is barely established, sallies forth bearing his lance, which will certainly do until a phallic symbol comes along. The knight becomes the emblem of pure, if untested, maleness in search of a chalice, the Holy Grail, which hit you think about it is a symbol of female sexuality as understood once upon a time: the empty vessel, waiting to be filled. And the reason for seeking to bring together the lance and the chalice? Fertility. (Freud gets help here from Jessie L. Weston, Sir James Frazer and Carl Jung, all of whom explain a great deal about mythic thinking, fertility myths, and archetypes.) Typically the knight rides out from a community that has fallen on hard times. Crops are failing, rains have stopped, livestock and possibly humans are dying or failing to be born, the kingdom is turning into a wasteland. We need to restore fertility and order, says the ageing king, too old now to go in search of fertility symbols. Perhaps he can no longer use his lance, so he sends the young man. It isn’t wanton or wild sex, but it’s still sex.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Problems With The King Arthur Story

King Arthur stories are part of the reason why the male hero has been central since the fifth century. Before that, females were often the main characters in stories, because they were thought to have produced the world.

The Centrality of the Adventure Story, Marjery Hourihan

Examples Of Arthurian Stories

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Shrek The Third
  • The Usual Suspects
  • Star Wars
  • Forrest Gump
  • Ulysses
  • Lord of the Rings
  • The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — The other Narnia books are Biblical but this one has a distinct Arthurian feel.

The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.

There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.

Amanda Craig

King Arthur and Westerns

In the characters of the American Western film, [Frank] McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.

Symbolism of Place

Subverting The Myth of King Arthur

WHEN good king Arthur ruled this land, He was a goodly king; He stole three pecks of barley-meal, To make a bag-pudding.
A bag-pudding the king did make,
And stuffed it well with plums: And in it put great lumps of fat,
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen did eat thereof,
And noblemen beside; And what they could not eat at night,
The queen next morning fried.

Of the above nursery rhyme Jack writes:

This nursery rhyme, with its down-to-earth king and queen, would seem to stem from this period [the 16th century]. After all, far from being a heroic figure of high chivalry — as portrayed by Malory — this goodly king is now a thief. Arthur’s famous banquets, where no one could eat until a marvel had occurred (from headless knights and damsels in distress to visions of the Holy Grail), have turned into a slapstick pudding-making and -eating session. Guinevere, rather than being the mysterious, beautiful queen and object of forbidden love, is demoted to a penny-pinching housewife, thriftily frying up the remains of the pudding for breakfast. It’s hard not to feel that the author of the rhyme must have heard the Arthurian legends one time too many. Opening with When good King Arthur ruled this land, this rhyme mocks both the high-flown poetry of Le Morte d’Arthur and wistfulness for ye goode olde days that almost certainly never were.

Albert Jack, Pop Goes The Weasel
MAD Magazine Special Halloween Issue, 1960
MAD Magazine Special Halloween Issue, 1960 riffing on the headless horseman trope

Header image: William Bell Scott – King Arthur Carried to the Land of Enchantment – 1846-62