It is easy to dismiss the relevance of fairy tales, fables, myths, and ghost stories on modern lives. The ordinariness of everyday life is, for most of us, anything but mythological. We don’t see ourselves as heroes of our own existences. But sometimes, just the act of being human, of doing what it takes to be alive and connected in a complicated, violent, awe-inspiring world, can be the stuff of legend.
In her essay collection, Ordinary Wonder Tales, Emily Urquhart tells stories from her anything-but-ordinary life with refreshing frankness, weaving in parallels from the world of myth and folklore.
“I’ve always felt that the term fairy tale doesn’t quite capture the essence of these stories,” she writes, “I prefer the term wonder tale, which is Irish in origin, for its suggestion of awe coupled with narrative. In a way, this is most of our stories.”
Urquhart has no qualms about admitting that she believes in ghosts. She opens the book with an essay on ghost stories and her personal experience with the ghosts that haunted her and her family. The piece is an examination of childhood credulity and how it evolves as we grow. Myths such as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny fade away, to be replaced by religious belief and celebrity idolatry, but ghosts remain. In her essay, she sees a ghost of a small girl in the bedroom of the house in the small French village where her family stays while her father is on sabbatical. In a related piece later in the book, she narrates her grief process on losing her brother to alcoholism. She repeatedly sees his face in strangers’ visages, and is convinced that it is his ghost following her, in the manner of the Scandinavian folkloric belief that the uneasy dead move through the living.
In another essay, she discusses the relevance of the Child ballads (many of which do not end well for women) to the plight of women in the modern world. In many of the ballads, compiled by in the nineteenth century by folklorist Francis James Child, women are murdered, raped, abducted, and burned at the stake just for following their hearts. Her own experiences include being attacked by a group of men in Ukraine, where she worked as a reporter, and being sexually harassed on the streets of Toronto, only to be dismissed by the police. A devotee of Law and Order: SVU, she makes a case for the show as a modern retelling of the ballads, but with a feminist slant.
Urquhart spends several chapters discussing pregnancy and miscarriage, her own experience with both being fraught with complications. During one of her pregnancies, she is doing dissertation fieldwork collecting stories in Newfoundland. She tries unsuccessfully to downplay her condition, feeling that it would color her informant’s responses. Meanwhile, she revels in her volunteer job tending the door at a local folk club, listening to singers’ renditions of the very stories that she is researching.
In the age of Covid, It is no stretch to find resonance in medieval plague tales. As Urquhart is hunkered down in her house, wearily home-schooling her children, she researches plague legends, calling it “mythological doom scrolling.” Many of these tales rose from the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe, but tales emanated from flu and cholera outbreaks in Asia and other parts of the world. She finds that the plague tales, like the information and misinformation flying around during the current pandemic, “are collective and personal; the experience of a plague is both intimate and common.”
But the final chapter is perhaps the most moving in this intensely intimate collection. She addresses the impact of time and memory on a human life. Her father is struggling with dementia and she finds a parallel to his disorientation in both Japanese and Irish stories. The tales of Urashima Taro and Tír na nóg both have heroes who emerge from magical kingdoms to find their worlds vastly changed due to the passage of time. “Time, as we experience it in the human world, is also a kind of magic.” she writes, “It can fly or it can stand still depending on our emotions.”
She ends the book with a harrowing story of a white-knuckle drive through a snowstorm in the Canadian winter. She is chauffeuring her father back to his care facility after a family visit. Though he is deep in the throes of dementia, he manages to talk her through the perilous drive, getting them safely to their destination. Writing of the solo trip home, she says, “I will be back in my mother’s red car, my father’s instructions a persistent comforting echo. Alone, with my memories, I will find my way home.”
Looking for more magical, mythical reads? Here are some recommendations for books informed by fairy tales, folklore, and mythology -
Ring by Andre Alexis
This final book in Alexis’s Quincunx (which can all be read as stand-alones) is part romance, part fairy tale, and fully a love letter to Toronto. A magic ring, ancient Greek myth, and a dash of philosophy - in other words, something for everyone.
Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty
This rollicking tall tale reimagines the founding of Cleveland, Ohio as the feat of the superheroic Big Son. The cast of characters is as quirky as anything out of Deadwood, and their exploits create a new mythology for the opening of the Midwest.
D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths Ingri and Edward D’aulaire
This classic set the standard for all mythology books to follow. In print for over fifty years, it is an all-ages delight, with sumptuous illustrations throughout.
Mythos: The Greek Myths Reimagined by Stephen Fry
This gorgeous edition by multi-hyphenate Stephen Fry is well-researched, richly illustrated, and funny. The other books in this trilogy are Heroes and Troy.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
When it comes to making mythology entertaining and accessible, no one beats Gaiman. This raucous account of gods battling for the soul of America is one of his best.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro takes on Arthurian legend in this labyrinthine novel about an elderly couple in search of their lost son. A collective amnesia has settled over Britain, thwarting their efforts. The book is a misty hymn to memory and longing.
White Cat, Black Dog by Kelly Link
Link turns her acerbic wit to fairy tales in this collection of short stories based on European folklore and the works of the brothers Grimm. Twisty, dark, and dreamlike, the stories take the reader to unexpected places.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s stories mix fantasy, folklore, feminism, and magical realism into a stew rich with sharp writing and dark humor. Her imaginative stories turn an eagle eye on the indignities visited upon women’s bodies.
Dream Drawings by N. Scott Momaday
Drawing on mythology, memory, and dreams, this collection of prose poems from Pulitzer Prize winner Momaday reads like the words of a shaman. There is wisdom and wonder in these simple parables, which touch on themes of nature, love, folklore, and mortality.
Coming in February -
Love Novel by Ivana Sajko, translated from the Croatian by Mima Simić
So much human drama packed into so few pages! The unnamed couple in this tight slap of a novella is dealing with un- and under-employment, new parenthood, and the impending dissolution of their marriage. He is an out-of-work Dante scholar who fills his time marching in the streets against the powers that be. She is an aspiring actor whose dreams are derailed by motherhood. They fight to keep their marriage afloat while the weight of capitalism threatens to capsize it. Claustrophobic, darkly funny, and deeply ironic, it’s a compact, literate condemnation of the systems that crush the dreams of the working class.
Your Absence is Darkness by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton
A man awakens from a dream in a rural church in Iceland to find that he has lost his memory. A woman who seems to know him offers to help him find his family. What ensues is a sweeping journey through the fog of reminiscence, the inevitability of death, and the endurance of love. Moving fluidly, but not always linearly, through time and place, the narrative explores how the choices we make shape not only our lives, but those of everyone whose existences brush against ours. Poetically written, with little stings of gallows humor, it is a compelling story of the complications of familial relations and how they mold us through generations. Philip Roughton’s translation has a flowing musicality. (And speaking of music, the character of Death has a playlist that weaves through and informs the narrative, with selections from Bach to Edith Piaf to the Pixies.)
And some poetry for the new year -
If I could ever play an instrument for real I like the idea of playing the jawbone,
that rattle of something dead in your hands, that thing that beats back at the sky
and says, I’m still here, even though clearly the donkey isn’t here or the horse isn’t
here, just the teeth and the jaw making music like resurrection or haunting or just
plain need. What I like most is that the jawbone is an idiophone, which i misread
once as ideaphone. But an idiophone is just that it makes music by the whole thing
vibrating without strings. I want that. That kind of reeling in the wind. All the
loose dry teeth, all the old bones of the skull, all the world, and the figure swaying with
its stick to make untuned music even death cannot deny.
~ Ada Limón (from The Hurting Kind, Milkweed Editions 2022)
I posted the following poem a few months ago, but in light of recent events, I felt that a re-read is in order. Thank you, Phil, for your timely words -
In Cleveland, snow so thick it looked as if it were not falling but
hovering, I shuffled along the snowbanked side of Washington
Boulevard, halfway to campus, when a Suburban scrolled past,
slowed. The driver’s window lowered to a woman in a copper wig. In a
Brooklyn accent, she asked if I needed a roide. I didn’t know her from
Eve. She was brave or kind or both. “I’m almost there,” I replied. She
said, “You’ll probably get there before I do!” We laughed together in
the falling snow, as she rolled up her window…
Into the minibus, near Jerusalem, the young Palestinian climbed.
He wore a pen in his Oxford, black hair parted clean. We got to talking
where we were from. He hoped, he said, to study engineering
in Cleveland. The minivan braked. We pulled out passports. A
soldier barked something we couldn’t follow, the young man said
something we couldn’t follow, his hands dancing in the empty air.
The soldier grabbed his wrists. We pulled away (we couldn’t follow)
and he disappeared, surrounded by three soldiers, as we drew near
~ Philip Metres (from Shrapnel Maps, Copper Canyon Press 2020)
For further reading -