Fantasy Reads: The Fairy Tales of Barbara Leonie Picard

I usually recommend books which are easy to get hold of but this week I’m making an exception to that rule for the sake of an unjustly neglected writer – Barbara Leonie Picard (1917-2011). She was a self-taught expert on the mythology and folklore of a wide range of cultures and her retellings of myths and legends remain popular. Many people, including me, were first introduced to classics such as`The Odyssey of Homer’  and the `Stories of King Arthur and His Knights’ through Picard’s work. It is her own fiction which seems to have been forgotten. Picard wrote some remarkable historical novels for children including `Ransom for a Knight’ (1956) and `One is One’ (1965), the story of a boy who runs away from a monastery to pursue his dream of becoming a knight. The latter is one of the saddest books I know but also one of the most inspiring.

Picard’s greatest contribution to Fantasy is the fifty or so original fairy tales she wrote between 1942 and 1950. These were published in a series of illustrated volumes, none of which is easy or cheap to obtain.  The titles alone made me want to track them down. There is `The Mermaid and the Simpleton` (1949), `The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter’ (1951) and `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ (1954) both with wonderful drawings by my favourite illustrator, Charles Stewart, and `The Goldfinch Garden’ (1963). `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ was reprinted in 1968 with two additional stories under the title `Twice Seven Tales’.  In 1994 Oxford University Press finally brought out a mass-market paperback called `Selected Fairy Tales’ which contains sixteen stories from these collections, chosen and introduced by the author herself. Plenty of book-dealers offer this volume. Unless I say otherwise, you can assume that the stories I refer to below are in `Selected Fairy Tales’.

Fairy tales seem to have been a comfort to Picard during her lonely childhood (she was educated by a governess and hardly ever saw her French father) while as an adult she read, translated and retold hundreds of stories from all over the world. She knew exactly how fairy tales and medieval romances were put together and she used many of the techniques of traditional story-telling in her own short fiction. Picard’s crystal-clear prose is beautiful but not consciously poetic like Oscar Wilde’s (see my November 2013 post on his Collected Fairy Tales); it never impedes the flow of the story. Dialogue is sparingly used and the settings and characters for each tale are swiftly introduced in a straightforward manner. Magic is taken for granted and you can be sure of plenty of action and no boring bits.

Another traditional feature is the use of repeated motifs with slight variations: so a farmer may dream three times that he has been visited by the spirit of the corn-fields (`The Corn Maiden’), a king may perform three nearly impossible tasks for three witches (`The Third Witch’) or a nobleman may kill three beloved animals in the hope of working a spell (`Betrade and Dominic’). All the character-types you might expect appear in Picard’s fairy tales. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses, noble knights and beautiful ladies, plucky goatherds, kind shepherds and clever servant-girls, witches and wizards, mermaids and nixies, fairies and djinns, woodland spirits and talking animals. The leading characters often do traditional things, like getting lost in woods, going on quests for magical objects, and falling hopelessly in love at first sight.

Yet there are some differences between Picard’s carefully crafted stories and authentic folk and fairy tales. There is rather more description than a traditional story-teller would have used, partly because the rural backgrounds of many of the stories are less familiar to most modern readers than they would have been to the original audience. So Picard makes it clear exactly what a ploughboy (in `The Ploughboy and the Nixie’) or a milkmaid (in `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’) does for a living and she is particularly good at evoking the colours and scents of the countryside by mentioning specific flowers. She also tells us more about the inner thoughts of her leading characters than a traditional story-teller would and there is a greater emphasis on character development. These are `transformative’ tales in which extraordinary events can change the whole outlook of the people involved. A flint-hearted witch may find that she is capable of love after all (`The Third Witch’) or an arrogant young ruler may discover the meaning of true friendship (`The King’s Friend’).

In the introduction to `Selected Fairy Tales’ Picard stated that she began writing fairy tales to amuse herself and `forget the sad war days’ while she was on duty as a firewatcher during the Second World War. So are these jolly morale-boosting stories in which good always defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after? Mainly, no. There are a few light-hearted stories, such as `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’ in which the sprite makes a hash of being a milkmaid, or the title story in `The Goldfinch Garden’ (about a lazy gardener and a wise old woman) but most of Picard’s fairy tales have a serious, even melancholy tone. They depict the world as a harsh place in which aristocrats mistreat their servants, princes fail to keep their promises, widows and orphans may be desperately poor and a mermaid can be sold to the highest bidder and kept in a cage (as in the title story in `The Mermaid and the Simpleton’). The endings of Picard’s stories are pleasingly unpredictable – sometimes joyful, sometimes sad.

I have noticed two recurring themes in Picard’s work which add depth to her stories. The first theme I shall call `the impossible couple’. In many of Picard’s fairy stories, two people fall in love but face terrible obstacles because of social or racial differences, ancient feuds or inflexible moral codes. So in `Heart of the West Wind’ there is no chance that a stableboy and an Emperor’s daughter will be allowed to marry; it is scandalous for a Christian young woman to want to run off with a pagan faun (`The Faun and the Wood Cutter’s Daughter’); and a boy and a water-spirit are kept apart by the physical differences between their worlds (`The Ploughboy and the Nixie’). Two tales depict the fairy people trying to prevent one of their own staying with a human (`Count Alaric’s Lady’ and `Diccon and Elfrida’) and the intense relationships between young men in some of the stories could now be read as `impossible couples’ too (try `The Ivory Box’). Sometimes a way is found for the star-crossed lovers to live together but almost as often flight or death seem the only options.

That brings me to the second recurring theme – escape from a cruel world. Some of Picard’s characters suffer overwhelming problems. In `The Corn Maiden’ a young farmer is about to lose everything he owns, while in `The Ivory Box’ a betrayed husband faces execution for a crime he didn’t commit, but magical escape routes are offered to both of them. Of all the stories by Picard which I read as a child, the one which had most impact on me was that of `Little Lady Margaret’ – a shy girl who escapes an arranged marriage by weaving herself into the beautiful world of a tapestry that she has created. Barbara Leonie Picard’s fairy tales seem to have been written to provide her with a refuge from the troubles of her own life. Perhaps they can do the same for you. Until next time….



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Geraldine Pinch