Asexual Myths & Tales

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Beauty and the Beast Revisited


“This is where the wealthy and the powerful rule...” The words that put a shiver down my teenage spine. 

Last Christmas I was given a full box set of the 1980s TV drama Beauty and the Beast. And surprisingly given the lack of activities available in 2020, I’m still working my way through it. For those not in the know, the series followed the story of Catherine, a wealthy lawyer in New York, and Vincent, a sensitive and troubled man-beast who was part of a secret colony below the city streets. It absolutely rocked my world in the 80s and early 90s. I still have the novelisation, cassette of poetry and music from the show, and unwatchable VHS tapes of four selected episodes. But mainly, I hadn’t watched it since my teens. These are my thoughts on revisiting it as a 40-something in the year 2020.

1. So many episodes!

I remember going to the USA as an au pair in 1994 and discovering episodes of Beauty and the Beast I had never seen before. Well, here’s some news for myself: there are even more episodes! Just so many. It’s like watching for the first time.

2. Flat cars, fat computers

I was fully prepared for the big hair and shoulder pads, but I totally forgot how flat the cars were. (Was that an American thing?) They honestly look like they’ve been squashed! And the size of the computers! When you think what you can do now with a smart phone...

3. A screenwriter always pays his debts 

Yes, that’s right. Many of the episodes were written and produced by none other than George R R Martin. I have to admit, his episodes do stand out for the quality of their storytelling. But what a transition from the lyrical spirituality of Catherine and Vincent’s love to the blood and guts of Westeros!

4. New York, New York

As a teenager in the North of England, I knew very little about New York, beyond a vague idea that it was dangerous. (I did visit on my way back to Britain in 1994 in the company of my aunty and uncle, but that was very brief). I didn’t know that in the 80s the crime and drugs scene was as bad as it was. Many of the early episodes of B &B address social issues facing different communities within New York, which I found fascinating and forward-thinking on my re-watch.

5. The Towering Inferno

My teenage self had never heard of Donald Trump either. (Oh, blissful time!) But watching now, I can’t help feeling that the character of property developer Elliott Burch is at least partly meant to represent him, particularly in the episode “Ozymandius”, where he is building a huge tower that threatens the existence of the Tunnels.

6. The category is... The Tunnels

Neither can I view B & B in the same light having watched Pose, the drama about New York’s underground trans scene in the 1980s. (Which actually included a character working in Trump Tower). Unsurprisingly, my teenage self knew nothing about this either. But B & B was one of the first things that came to my mind when watching Pose. I couldn’t help wondering if the idea of an secret, alternate society based on chosen family, hidden under the streets of New York had some basis in fact.

7. Asexual in the 80s

And - oh, yes! - Catherine and Vincent’s story is so ace! Knowing now that I’m a (very) romantic asexual, I understand why B & B meant so much to me as a teenager. Two people with a spiritual bond, who “though they cannot be together will never, ever be apart”. The fact that - as Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton point out in the interviews - they do everything to express affection without actually kissing. (I mean, that episode where they embrace and their shadows kiss in the moon! Ohhhh!!!) This is the reason why, back in the day, I never bought the VHS of “Above, Below and Beyond”, where Catherine supposedly has Vincent’s baby. (And why I still don’t know whether I can bring myself to venture into the unknown territory of Season 3 in my current box set). Any suggestion that they might have “done it” felt like a betrayal of the entire story. Now I understand why.

So, will I ever complete the series? I don’t know. In the meantime, I’ll keep the magic of that haunting woodwind opening and that silk-and-granite voice: “Her name is Catherine.”

Monday, 26 October 2020

St Theresa and Zellandine: The Agony and the Ecstasy

"Zellandine and Troylus" by Anna Hopkinson, 2019

[Warning: contains sexual content]

As Asexual Myths & Tales comes out this week, I would like to return to one of the most controversial stories from Asexual Fairy Tales, “Zellandine and Troylus”.

The reaction of some readers to this story almost caused me to abandon writing the second volume of tales. Opinions were raised about the "lack of consent" in the story and how offensive it was. (Yes, yes, I know. Never read your own reviews). Be assured, I take this kind of thing very seriously. I've tried very hard to put trigger warnings into Myths & Tales. And there is also a story - "The True Love Knot" which could be considered the antithesis of "Zellandine". I won't give any spoilers here.

As I wrote in Asexual Fairy Tales:

“Zellandine and Troylus” is one of the earliest known versions of “Sleeping Beauty” and comes from the medieval French romance Perceforest (c.1330-44). It also has echoes of “Rapunzel”, as the maiden is kept in a tower that can only be accessed by a high window. Many commentators find the tale deeply problematic because of its apparent portrayal of non-consensual sex. 

Asexual Fairy Tales, 2019. "Zellandine and Troylus"

The “offending” passage - as I retell it - goes like this:

The curtains of the bed softly stirred, and a voice whispered in Troylus’ ear:

“Are you really such a fool as those at Zellande believed you to be? Follow your desire. The lady dreams of becoming a wife and mother. Give her the gift she longs for.”

Troylus flushed red.

“In her sleep?” He said, aghast. “Without her permission?”

“She gives her permission, trust me,” said Venus. “Now, do as you are bidden.”

In truth, Troylus would have been hard pressed to resist, for the flames of desire had arisen in him. He took off his clothes and got under the covers, where Zellandine lay completely unclothed, white and tender. Troylus was overcome with love and happiness. If only Zellandine could have spoken or responded in some way, his joy would have been even greater. As gently as his ardour would allow, he caressed her until at last he planted his seed in her. At that, she gave a heavy sigh, and Troylus felt she knew what they had done. He lay back on the bed and drifted in and out of sleep, until he heard a whirr of wings at the window.

(Asexual Fairy Tales, 2019. "Zelandine and Troylus")

To me, this is a deeply symbolic story about the wish to be absent during sex and childbirth. Not a tale about some sort of sleep rape. I had already mentioned in my retelling that Zellandine wanted to marry Troylus and have his babies. I also mentioned in a previous blog - Sleeping Beauty and Surgery - the connection I personally felt between this story and my experience of undergoing gynaecological surgery under anaesthetic.

It could also be a story about spiritual ecstasy and communion with the divine.

As I wrote in my article for Folklore ThursdayPrison or Prophecy: The Woman in the Tower

Troylus... flies through the window of her tower on the back of a godlike man-bird. Interestingly, we are told this is the Window of the Gods through which no mortal can enter. So, Zellandine’s family initially assume her lover is the god Mars. Although this is not the case, the gods have clearly had a hand in their union and in Zellandine’s subsequent pregnancy.

We are approaching the point where fairy tale crosses into myth. The image of the bird-man hints at something shamanic. When our tales begin to speak of gods, fate and prophecies of vengeance, then we are looking at much older, deeper, elemental meanings.

There is a whole tradition of stories in which a miraculous child of the prophecy is conceived in a tower by the intervention of the gods. Or by the gods themselves. For, this trope is also related to tales of parthenogenesis and virgin births. (And you know how much I love those!) Read the article if you want to learn more.


The Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila.
Creator: Gian Lorenzo Bernini Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Which brings me nicely to the story of St Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic who is famous for her experience of "transverberation": being pierced through the heart by an angelic spear while in a state of spiritual ecstasy.

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron's point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.[3]

The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1515–1582). Copied from Wikipedia.

In The Anatomical Venus (2016), Joanna Ebenstein writes, "The account reads as extremely suggestive to those outside the faith, but there is no indication that the young Teresa's diary was conisdered impure..." She reminds us that the word "ecstasy" means "an escape from stasis" and that, "Perhaps the heart of the confusion lies in the notion of the ecstatic as either religious or sexual, sacred or profane, where once it was understood to be both." All kinds of ecstatic release cause us to loose our sense of individuality and become one with a greater whole. This is the experience of mystics across all religions, and of many ordinary people as well.

It might seem strange that, as an asexual, I am arguing that sex is spiritual. Although my asexuality probably contributes to my desire for people to see and portray sex as a beautiful, spiritual act, rather than just "humping". 

For me, that will never be my experience, but I have definitely experienced ecstasy many times - while listening to music, dancing, watching a film etc. 

I guess what I'm saying is, if sex can be spiritual, it can also symbolise something spiritual. Going back to Zellandine, she wants to have a spiritual union with Troylus. She wants to be his wife and have his babies, even if she doesn't want to feel the process that makes it happen. For me, it's the ulitimate wish-fulfulment; having your cake and eating it. 

And it also points to something deeper and more mythic. A longing for the ecstasy of union with the divine and the cosmos. That blissful sense of losing yourself, caught up in the moment, feeling, "I could die now and be happy." And that's not something that's limited to people who enjoy sex. It's for everyone.

Book quotations

Hopkinson, Elizabeth. Asexual Fairy Tales. Bristol: SilverWood, 2019. pp. 53, 58.

Ebenstein, Joanna. The Anatomical Venus. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016. pp. 181, 184.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Susanna Clarke: A True Narnia Fan


Warning: contains spoilers

A while back, I wrote a blog entitled Let’s Talk About Narnia in which I bemoaned the fact that many authors seem to express disappointment with Narnia because of its “Christian allegory”. I’ve always felt that to say so is to not really “get” Narnia. For a start, it’s not even an allegory! And it has so many hidden depths, so many influences. If you want to truly understand Narnia, you must understand C.S. Lewis as an academic, an intellectual, apologist and medievalist, who debated with his fellow intellectuals, JRR Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams a.k.a. The Inklings, and absorbed their ideas into his own. 

Or you could read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

It’s a strange tale of a man called Piranesi (although he’s sure that’s not his name) who lives in a House of Gormenghast-like proportions, filled with statues, birds and tides. Twice a week, he meets with “The Other”, a surprisingly well-dressed and well-equipped man, whom Piranesi assists with his great work of recovering the lost powers of the ancients. But is The Other friend or foe? Is Piranesi mad or sane? What of the entries in his journal which he cannot remember making? Are there in fact Other Worlds?

Susanna Clarke cited The Magician’s Nephew as a reference point for her great work, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. And this new work also begins with a quote from The Magician’s Nephew. More than that, it explores themes drawn from The Magician’s Nephew, The Silver Chair and other Narnia books; themes that are themselves drawn from the philosophy of Owen Barfield (to whose daughter Lucy Barfield The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is dedicated). 

Barfield’s philosophy (or androsophy) is not easy to understand. But it does treat with the idea of Other Worlds in an intellectual space where science and magic meet. 

I don’t intend to list all the ways this book interacts with Narnia and the Inklings’ ideas. A casual reader will doubtless notice the House of Statues, the Faun and the Old Dog Fox Teaching the Squirrels and Satyrs, but these are just signposts. The main and most obvious point of reference is the figure of Dr Valentine Andrew Ketterley, who not only has the same surname as Uncle Andrew and acts in the same way as Uncle Andrew with regard to magic and the Other World but it turns out is actually a descendent of the same “very old Dorsetshire family”. Like his ancestor, Val Ketterley is interested in Other Worlds for what he can get out of them, is incapable of feeling the Other World’s soul, tricks an innocent person into actually going there, and when threatened decides the solution is a Gun.

But this linking character only points us to a variety of questions and ideas straight out of Narnia. Like the Wood Between the Worlds, the House/Labyrinth leads those who go there to quickly believe they have been there always. Like Prince Rillian, Piranesi is lead to believe he is mad when actually sane and vice versa. And like Rillian, Puddleglum, Eustace & Jill, he must question whether he only imagines such things as trees and crowds because he has created them in his imagination from the “real” statues, or if the statues in fact represent things that exist in an Other World? 

The idea put forth by Laurence Arne-Sayles - villain though he is - that to open the portal to Other Worlds one must regain a childlike sense of wonder - and the fact that he finds it himself in a childhood garden - recalls C.S. Lewis’ recollection of “Joy” when seeing a miniature garden as a child, something he longed for many years to rediscover. Lewis said we yearn for an Other World because it is our true home. This book leaves us with the ambiguous question: Which is the real world? Which is home? 

Piranesi is The Magician’s Nephew for adults, written by an author who very much “gets” Narnia.

Monday, 3 August 2020

My First (Virtual) Festival Appearance

As my home district of Bradford goes back into lockdown, it might feel as if horizons are contracting. But thanks to the LGBTQIA community in the neighbouring city of Leeds, this last weekend mine expanded.

It was last year (in 2019, when most of us couldn't have dreamt of the devastation of COVID-19) that I received a private message on Twitter from Leeds LGBT+ Literature Festival saying someone had recommended my book Asexual Fairy Tales for inclusion in the 2020 festival. My first festival! Well, I have read twice at the Fringe of Ilkley Literature Festival, but this was a proper, invited, paid author appearance! So exciting!!

As it happened, none of the invited guests would actually get to appear in the usual way. But, like so many, the organisers of the festival put all their efforts into producing an online, virtual festival. Pre-recorded readings, zoom workshops, the lot. The benefit is, you didn't (and still don't) have to be in Leeds at a certain time to enjoy the events. Anyone from around the world can still enjoy the videos.

I did two readings, uploaded on consecutive days. One from Asexual Fairy Tales - my beloved original tale, "The Ice Queen and the Mer-King." If you want to understand my own experience of asexuality and my struggles to identify, this is the story to begin with. The second tale I read is from my forthcoming Asexual Myths & Tales"Attis and the Priests of Cybele" is a retelling of a Phrygian myth, drawn from various (and sometimes contradictory) ancient sources. It does carry mild trigger warnings for mention of castration and unwanted sexual advances, but it is packed with symbolic representation of asexuality, sex-repulsion, third gender individuals and so much more. 

I do hope you enjoy the readings from my work. And I hope that maybe I'll be asked to appear at more festivals (virtually or in person) in the future!

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Back in Time for Tennis

This isn't my usual sort of post, but I've just seen the BBC are getting through the lack of Wimbledon by showing and discussing matches and tournaments of the past. Wimbledon was a big part of my teenage/young adult life, and I remembered that I wrote a poem about Wimbledon 1992 when I was 18. See if this jogs a memory for anyone else...

Wimbledon '92

Goodbye Connors - foiled again,
Sanchez, Sanchez - back to Spain,
Looks like Lendl really blew it,
Sabatini - can she do it?

Here's the line-up on Court One - 
Strawberries and lots of sun,
Umpire who is there to vex,
Seles making sound effects.

Thirty, fourty. What an ace!
That lob was in the perfect place.
Bops the net judge. Oh, I say!
Wind it back - action replay.

Here comes Britain's hope and glory,
Pray it's not the same old story.
Boris Becker - hearts on hold.
Graf, Agassi - go for gold.

Here are some results for you,
Underdogs are pulling through.
Top seed beaten. Oh, well played!
Over to Virginia Wade.

Thirty, forty. One set all.
Deuce. Advantage. Game. New balls.
This is some Titanic clash.
Ends it with a backhand smash.

Goran Ivanisavan-
Ivanisan- Well, that man,
Playing Edberg, whose shot beckoned
In a milimetre of a second.

Not much going on today,
Sorry folks, but rain stopped play.
Linesmen try to entertain,
Crowds are "Singing in the Rain."

Thirty, forty. Want to bet?
That ball was a foot above the net!
Play's been going for an hour.
Mark Cox talks reducing power.

Past years' champions grace the quarters,
Each one meets a mighty slaughter,
But they're smug and sitting pretty
At the ladies' seed committee.

Gleaming trophies waiting there, 
Duchess with her combed-back hair.
Who will win? It's no surprise.
This year Dan Maskell takes the prize.

Monday, 15 June 2020

Pride Month: My Top 5 Asexual Icons

The world is going through very tough times at the moment and there's a lot to make us cry, but there are always things that bring us joy in the midst of despair. For me, one of those things has been the successful crowdfunding of Asexual Myths & Tales (the follow-up to last year's Asexual Fairy Tales) right in the middle of Pride Month. 

So, what better time to share my top five asexual icons. Just to clarify, I don't mean by this that I necessarily believe all these people and characters are historically/canonically asexual, but that to me they symbolise something about my asexuality; they are somehow poster people for my identity. 

  • The Virgin Mary
"Pearls and Roses" by Anna Hopkinson

Trust me, as a Christian with both Protestant and Catholic friends and relations, I've heard all the arguments back and forth about whether Mary really was a lifelong virgin. To me, it matters less from a theological point of view than it does from a personal viewpoint. The words, "Virgin ever, after as before," from Alma Redemptoris Mater gave me great comfort at a time when I was struggling to reconcile being an asexual wife and mother. I have always identified with Mary from a young age - which perhaps should have been an early clue to my identity!

  • Legolas

"It was just me, Legolas and the Virgin Mary." These were the words of frustration I wrote in 2005, after discovering that most virgins were still sexual. Whatever your opinion of the character, the androgynous, sexless figure of Legolas in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film trilogy kickstarted a rebirth in my soul and a journey of self-discovery no less adventurous than the quest of the Ring.
  • The Lady of Shalott
"The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse. Public domain.

We had this picture on the wall in our English department at school and I was always drawn to it - another early sign. When I read the poem, the eponymous Lady became the figure in literature I most identified with her. She has turned up many times over the years, in my poetry, songs and short stories, notably "The Ice Queen and the Mer-King" in Asexual Fairy Tales.
  • Sir Galahad
"Companions of the Grail" by Anna Hopkinson

I've always been convinced that Sir Galahad is asexual and that his relationship with Sir Perceval's sister (Pearl, as I call her in Asexual Fairy Tales) is a kind of queer platonic relationship. I wrote about all this in story form in "Companions of the Grail", my retelling of an episode from the Quest of the Holy Grail.

  • Farinelli
"Elizabeth and Farinelli" by Kirsty Rolfe

All the castrati are asexual icons to me. But Farinelli (Carlo Broschi 1705-1782) is the most famous and seemingly the most well-adjusted. He came from a higher social background than most of the boys who were castrated at a young age to preserve their soprano voices and sent to train in rigorous conservatoires. Perhaps the fact that his journey was less rags-to-riches than most (although as a top-billed singer he commanded huge fees) helped preserve him from the rock star behaviour of some of his contemporaries. I do find it likely that he was in fact asexual. I have been working on a novel project about the castrati for many years; and I was delighted to find Farinelli as a character in "The Rose of the Alhambra", a tale I have retold in Asexual Myths & Tales.

Friday, 15 May 2020

More books under 220 pages: a response

I read a blog post this morning that I simply had to respond to. 101 books under 220 pages by Mols. She listed some great books: some of which I've read, some of which I've heard of, and some which just sound intriguing. So, I thought I would make a blog of my own, in a similar style, listing some other books of under 220 pages.

This is of especial interest to me, since my own book of Asexual Fairy Tales comes it at 132 pages, and I'm now crowdfunding a second volume. However, I decided to limit the list below to books that don't feature my work. I hope you find lots here to enjoy!


  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Simon Armitage (114 pages)                    This story, first told in the late fourteenth century, is one of the most enthralling, enigmatic and beloved poems in the English language. Simon Armitage's version is meticulously responsive to the tact, sophistication and dramatic intensity of the original. It is as if, six hundred years apart, two poets set out on a journey through the same mesmeric landscape – physical, allegorical and acoustic – in the course of which the Gawain poet has finally found his true translator.
  2. Poems from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien Hardback volume containing the well-loved poems from Tolkien's literary masterpiece The Lord of The Rings, featuring a cover illustrated by celebrated Tolkien artist Alan Lee. Featuring poems written in Tolkien's inimitable style -- each of which add to the magic, mystery and lyricism of the epic saga The Lord of The Rings. These poems can also be enjoyed as a separate entity, apart from the main body of the text , with each stanza giving an insight into the mythology and sagas of Tolkien's parallel universe of Middle-earth.
  3. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse translated by Richard Hamer (207 pages) A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse contains the Old English texts of all the major short poems, such as The Battle of Maldon', The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer and The Seafarer, as well as a generous representation of the many important fragments, riddles and gnomic verses that survive from the seventh to the twelfth centuries, with facing-page verse translations.
  4. Firece Fairytales by Nikita Gill (157 pages) Traditional fairytales are rife with cliches and gender stereotypes: beautiful, silent princesses; ugly, jealous, and bitter villainesses; girls who need rescuing; and men who take all the glory. But in this rousing new prose and poetry collection, Nikita Gill gives Once Upon a Time a much-needed modern makeover. Through her gorgeous reimagining of fairytale classics and spellbinding original tales, she dismantles the old-fashioned tropes that have been ingrained in our minds. In this book, gone are the docile women and male saviors. Instead, lines blur between heroes and villains. You will meet fearless princesses, a new kind of wolf lurking in the concrete jungle, and an independent Gretel who can bring down monsters on her own. 
  5. John Keats: An Anthology. English Poets Series (144 pages)                                                  A lovely, pocket-sized anthology of some of Keats' best loved poems, including "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "The Eve of St Agnes" and "Ode to a Nightingale".   
  6. Beowulf translated by Michael Alexander (176 pages) Beowulf is the greatest surviving work of literature in Old English, unparalleled in its epic grandeur and scope. It tells the story of the heroic Beowulf and of his battles, first with the monster Grendel, who has laid waste to the great hall of the Danish king Hrothgar, then with Grendel's avenging mother, and finally with a dragon that threatens to devastate his homeland. Through its blend of myth and history, Beowulf vividly evokes a twilight world in which men and supernatural forces live side by side. And it celebrates the endurance of the human spirit in a transient world.      
  7. The Lais of Marie de France translated by Glyn S Burgess & Keith Busby (140 pages)      This is a prose translation of the lais or poems attributed to Marie de France. Little is known of her but she was probably the Abbess of the abbey at Shaftesbury in the late 12th century, illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet and hence the half-sister of Henry II of England. It was to a king, and probably Henry II, that she dedicated these poems of adventure and love which were retellings of stories which she had heard from Breton minstrels. She is regarded as the most talented French poet of the medieval period.
  8. Poems by Steve Turner (192 pages)                                                                                                This thematic selection of the best of the material produced by the performance poet since the mid-1970s is designed to appeal to a broad range of readers of all ages. Some of the subjects are serious, such as love and death, and some are more ephemeral, including daydreams and today's best friend, offering a wide variety of fun and reflective verse.                            
  9. The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris                                                       From Acorn to Weasel: a gorgeous, hand-illustrated, large-format spellbook celebrating the magic and wonder of the natural worldAll over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. Words like Dandelion, Otter, Bramble, Acorn and Lark represent the natural world of childhood, a rich landscape of discovery and imagination that is fading from children's minds.The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood. It is a joyful celebration of the poetry of nature words and the living glory of our distinctive, British countryside. With acrostic spell-poems by peerless wordsmith Robert Macfarlane and hand-painted illustrations by Jackie Morris, this enchanting book captures the irreplaceable magic of language and nature for all ages.           
  10. Wenceslas by Carol Ann Duffy (38 pages)                                                                            Carol Ann Duffy's wonderful Christmas poem retelling the carol of King Wenceslas, beautifully illustrated by Stuart Kolakovic. Beginning with the King’s Cook, who is preparing a sumptuous Christmas Pie, Wenceslas takes us to a medieval feast. The lords and ladies are at their places, the wine is in full flow, the musicians are playing in the gallery and the entertainment has begun. All should be perfect. But when the good King looks up from his table he sees something more than just snow, falling deep and crisp and even . . .

Short story collections & anthologies

  1. Vasilisa the Wise by Kate Forsyth & Lorena Carrington (101 pages)                                      For many young women, the only fairy-tales they know are the ones that have been retold by Walt Disney Studios. Once upon a time, these stories of magical transformation were meant for young women as they grew away from childhood and towards adulthood. They were told by their mothers and grandmothers and the wise women of the clan as they spun and wove and stirred their pots and made their potions. The heroines of these old tales set out on a difficult road of trials to discover their true destiny. And, contrary to popular opinion, marrying a prince was not the only goal. These ancient tales of wonder and adventure are about learning to be strong, brave, kind and true-hearted, and trusting in yourself to change the world for the better.
  2. The Girl Who Married a Lion by Alexander McCall Smith (174 pages)                         Alexander McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and grew up hearing stories that so enchanted him, he passed them along to his own children. He now shares them in this jewel of a book.      
  3. Tales from the Perilous Realm by JRR Tolkien (178 pages) Enchanted by a sand-sorcerer, the toy dog Roverandom explores a world filled with strange and fabulous creatures; the fat and unheroic Farmer Giles of Ham is called upon to do battle with the dragon Chrysophylax; Hobbits, princesses, dwarves and trolls partake in the adventures of Tom Bombadil; Smith of Wootton Major journeys to the land of Faery via the magical ingredients of a giant cake; and Niggle the painter sets out to paint the perfect tree.
  4. The Wilful Princess & The Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (157 pages)                              One of the darkest legends in the Realm of the Elderlings recounts the tale of the so-called Piebald Prince, a Witted pretender to the throne unseated by the actions of brave nobles so that the Farseer line could continue untainted. Now the truth behind the story is revealed through the account of Felicity, a low-born companion of the Princess Caution at Buckkeep.With Felicity by her side, Caution grows into a headstrong Queen-in-Waiting. But when Caution gives birth to a bastard son who shares the piebald markings of his father's horse, Felicity is the one who raises him. And as the prince comes to power, political intrigue sparks dangerous whispers about the Wit that will change the kingdom forever...   
  5. Irish Love Stories by Brendan Nolan (191 pages)                                                                These pages teem with gods and mortals and fairyfolk and even ordinary people.Were they all by some miracle of the author's imagination to appear in the same place at the same time they would be of many backgrounds, times and locations.Yet, they would all have one thing in common.They would tell how a seed of love can become a tree of life.New lovers become their own folklore.They inspire all to fall in love over again.       
  6. The Celestial Omnibus by EM Forster (150 pages)                                                              1923. English author and critic, member of Bloomsbury group and friend of Virginia Woolf who achieved fame through his novels, which include: Room with a View, Maurice, A Passage to India, and Howard's End. The Celestial Omnibus is a collection of short-stories Forster wrote during the prewar years, most of which were symbolic fantasies or fables.   
  7. The Monkey God and Other Hindu Tales by Debjani Chatterjee (84 pages)                       The three worlds of gods, humans and demons come alive in these age-old tales from Hindu mythology. The twelve stories retold here contain much of the enduring wisdom of India. 
  8. Sleep is a Beautiful Colour edited by Santino Prinzi & Meg Pokrass (164 pages)                  Now in its sixth instalment, this anthology of flash-fictions celebrates National Flash Fiction Day (UK). From taxidermy fascinators and robot lawnmowers to the bewildering things children say, each of these flashes offer perspectives on life as only these characters know it. Some of these stories will shock, others will amuse, but all will leave you wondering how intriguing life and the world around us really is.

Graphic novels

  1. Black Butler by Yana Toboso (114 pages) In the Victorian age of London The Earl of the Phantomhive house, Ciel Phantomhive, needs to get his revenge on those who had humiliated him and destroyed what he loved. Not being able to do it alone he sells his soul to a demon he names Sebastian Michaelis. Now working as his butler, Sebastian must help the Earl Phantomhive in this suspenseful, exciting, thriller manga.  
  2. Bride of the Water God by Mi-Kyung Yun (184 pages) When Soah’s impoverished, desperate village decides to sacrifice her to the Water God Habaek to end a long drought, they believe that drowning one beautiful girl will save their entire community and bring much-needed rain. Not only is Soah surprised to be rescued by the Water God — instead of killed — she never imagined she’d be a welcomed guest in Habaek’s magical kingdom, where an exciting new life awaits her! Most surprising, however, is the Water God himself... and how very different he is from the monster Soah imagined.
  3. Fushigi Yugi by Yuu Watase (197 pages) Fifteen-year-old Miaka Yuki is transported into an ancient Chinese kingdom by an old book, The Universe of the Four Gods. Following the legend in the story, Miaka becomes the Priestess of Suzaku and must find her seven Celestial Warriors before she can save the kingdom and return home.
  4. Otogi Zoshi by Narumi Seto (179 pages) For Hikaru, learning swordsmanship is far more interesting than thinking about marriage...and she won't let being the only daughter of a noble house in 10th-century Japan stand in her way! But one fateful day, Hikaru comes across a group of thieves who want revenge on her adored older brother Raikou for obliterating their village. Now Hikaru must sharpen her sword, as she is the only person who can prevent her brother's head from being served on a platter!
  5. Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger (80 pages) 
  6. Once there was a Postman who fell in love with a Raven. So begins the tale of a postman who encounters a fledgling raven while on the edge of his route and decides to bring her home. The unlikely couple falls in love and conceives a child — an extraordinary raven girl trapped in a human body. The raven girl feels imprisoned by her arms and legs and covets wings and the ability to fly. Betwixt and between, she reluctantly grows into a young woman, until one day she meets an unorthodox doctor who is willing to change her.


  1. Writing Ourselves by John Eames (36 pages, 48 pages, 40 pages)                                            A triptych of short booklets which offer an imaginative venture into the minds of the Brontë sisters as they contemplated the central issues of their most famous novels. The texts, though fully researched, are neigher fully biographical nor literary critical, but a unique form of creative nonfiction.                                                        
  2. Pearls of Life by Martin Lönnebo, Carolina Welin & Carolina Johnasson (89 pages)    Stranded by stormy weather on a small Greek Island, Lutheran Bishop Emeritus Martin Lonnebo created the Pearls of Life concept to guide his own prayer. He shared the idea with others and was amazed at their response and their stories of ever deepening prayer.          
  3. A Book of Prayers to Keep For Ever by Sophie Piper (96 pages)                                        Each of these books is a collection, containing the best of the traditional offerings along with some fresh choices to make these books ideal for children to browse and enjoy while they are young and to remember and turn to as they grow up. The book comes with presentation page and enough space for the recipient to add personal favourites of their own.
  4. Favourite Yorkshire Recipes by Amanda Persey (48 pages)                                        Beginning with Yorkshire Pudding, and accompanied by beautiful illustrations of Yorkshire settings, Amanda takes us through a variety of traditional recipes, both savoury and sweet.
  5. A Little Book of Afternoon Teas by Rosa Mashiter (60 pages)                                     Afternoon tea is an English tradition, a social as well as culinary occasion. A Little Book of Afternoon Teas presents an exquisite array of English afternoon tea fare, from delicate cucumber sandwiches to ice creams and heartier meals and cakes.
  6. Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Britain and Ireland by Robin Harford (156 pages)      Robin has spent over fifteen years experimenting and exploring the world of wild plants, uncovering how our ancestors used plants to nourish and heal themselves. This book will help you rediscover this lost heritage. Knowledge that was once common to everyone.
  7. Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers translated by Maxwell Staniforth & Andrew Louth (195 pages)                                                                                                        The writings in this volume shed a glimmer of light, in an otherwise dark period, on the emerging traditions and organizations of the infant Church. They are a selection from a group known as the Apostolic Fathers, so-called because several of the authors were most likely disciples of the Apostles themselves. Like much of the New Testament, their writings take the form of letters, and for the most part deal with practical problems of the life of the early Church, as it struggled in the face of persecution to establish itself in the Roman world. They give us a picture of Christianity still drawing on the theology and traditions of its parent religion, Judaism.  


  1. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (90 pages)                                                                                          Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti's stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself - but first she has to make it there, alive.     
  2. The Voyages of Sindbad translated by NJ Dawood (100 pages)                                      SEVEN VOYAGES.SEVEN MISSIONS.ONLY ONE MAN HAS SURVIVED THEM. A poor man meets a great sailor and asks to hear his tale. He is amazed to be told of seven journeys to foreign lands, every one ending in shipwreck. Sindbad the Sailor has grown rich from his travels, but his path to fortune has been anything but easy.
  3. The Abduction of Sita by RK Narayan (110 pages)                                                          Ravana, the Supreme Lord, has enslaved all the gods. Although he now rules the world, he cannot resist a beautiful woman. When he catches a glimpse of the princess Sita, he falls under her spell and steals her away. Her beloved husband, Rama, will do anything to get her back. With the help of the brave monkey Hanuman, he journeys across the world to find her. But the evil Ravana will not give up Sita without a fight.     
  4. The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (118 pages)                                                                            Arja Kajermo’s debut The Iron Age is part coming-of-age novel, and part fairy-tale told from the perspective of a young girl growing up in the poverty of post-war Finland. On her family’s austere farm, the Girl learns stories and fables of the world around her – of Miina, their sleeping neighbour; that you should never turn a witch away at the door; how people get depressed if pine trees grow too close to the house; and why her father was unlucky not to have died in the war. Then, when she is little more than six years only, the family crosses from Finland to Sweden, from a familiar language to a strange one, from one unfriendly home to another. The Girl, mute but watchful, weaves a picture of her volatile father, resilient mother and strangely resourceful brothers.                
  5. Phantases by George MacDonald (212 pages)                                                                              In MacDonald's fairy tales, both those for children and (like this one) those for adults, the "fairy land" clearly represents the spiritual world, or our own world revealed in all of its depth and meaning. At times almost forthrightly allegorical, at other times richly dreamlike (and indeed having a close connection to the symbolic world of dreams), this story of a young man who finds himself on a long journey through a land of fantasy is more truly the story of the spiritual quest that is at the core of his life's work, a quest that must end with the ultimate surrender of the self.                          
  6. The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris (168 pages)                                                    "The Wood Beyond the World" was first published in 1894 and its author, William Morris is often considered one of the authors who aided in the growth of fantasy, utopian literature, and science fiction. C.S. Lewis cites William Morris as one of his favorite authors and J.R.R. Tolkein admits to being influenced greatly by Morris' fantasies. The hero of this romance is named Golden Walter, son of Bartholomew Golden, a great merchant in the town of Langton on Holm. Tired of his mundane life, Walter sets out on a sea voyage, anxious to see and learn more of the outside world, eventually winning for himself the kingdom of Stark-Wall and the love of a beautiful maiden.        
  7. The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu (167 pages)                    Edinburgh, 1874. On the coldest night the world has ever seen, Little Jack is born with a frozen heart and immediately undergoes a life-saving operation. But Dr Madeleine is no conventional medic and surgically implants a cuckoo-clock into his chest. Little Jack grows up different to other children: every day begins with a daily wind-up. At school he is bullied for his 'ticking', but Dr Madeleine reminds him he must resist strong emotion: anger is far too dangerous for his cuckoo-clock heart. So when the beautiful young street-singer, Miss Acacia, appears - pursued by Joe, the school bully - Jack is in danger of more than just falling in love... he is putting his life on the line.                                                     
  8. If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura (202 pages)                               The postman’s days are numbered. Estranged from his family, living alone with only his cat Cabbage to keep him company, he was unprepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that he has only months to live. But before he can tackle his bucket list, the Devil appears to make him an offer: In exchange for making one thing in the world disappear, our narrator will get one extra day of life. And so begins a very bizarre week…With each object that disappears the postman reflects on the life he’s lived, his joys and regrets, and the people he’s loved and lost.
  9. Through a Glass, Darkly by Jostein Gaarder (161 pages)                                                          It's almost Christmas. Cecilia lies sick in bed as her family bustle around her to make her last Christmas as special as possible. Cecilia has cancer. An angel steps through her window. So begins a spirited and engaging series of conversations between Cecelia and her angel. As the sick girl thinks about her life and prepares for her death, she changes subtly, in herself and in her relationships with her family. Jostein Gaarder is a profoundly optimistic writer, who writes about death with wisdom, compassion and an enquiring mind.       
  10. The Beauty by Aliya Whitely (112 pages)                                                                                   A dark and brutal vision of the future, this is not a tale for the faint of heart.To start: there will be love. The word was dead. Then it rose from under the earth, took form, came to us and demanded our attention. In the Valley of the Rocks, Nate is the storyteller, the voice and memory of the Group. Through the nights beyond women, William leads with youth and strength. Doctor Ben tends to their wounds in the dying days of man. Everyone has a role, even Uncle Ted, who spends so much time out in the woods. For what can man hope to achieve in a world without women? When the past is only grief how long should you hold on to it? What secrets can the forest offer to change it all?  
  11. Bridge of Sighs by Laura Morelli (17 pages)                                                                                  “My uncle the goldsmith died less than an hour ago but the Plague Doctor is already at our door…” After the bubonic plague takes his parents, ten-year-old Tonino is apprenticed to his uncle in a small goldsmith’s studio perched on a bridge. But as the Black Death reaches its hand into his uncle’s workshop, young Tonino is faced with making a choice to survive.  
  12. Twixt Firelight and Water by Juliet Marillier (71 pages)                                                            Long ago, the sorceress Lady Oonagh cast a curse over her own child. Now a druid, an ill-tempered raven and an adventurous young woman are drawn together as the time approaches for the evil magic to be undone. Fans of the Sevenwaters series will love this new episode, which fleshes out the history of druid Ciaran and his constant companion Fiacha.       
  13. Galatea by Madeline Miller (25 pages)                                                                                          In Ancient Greece, a skilled marble sculptor has been blessed by a goddess who has given his masterpiece – the most beautiful woman the town has ever seen – the gift of life. Now his wife, Galatea is expected to be obedience and humility personified, but it is not long before she learns to use her beauty as a form of manipulation. In a desperate bid by her obsessive husband to keep her under control, she is locked away under the constant supervision of doctors and nurses. But with a daughter to rescue, she is determined to break free, whatever the cost...
  14. The Restless Girls by Jessie Burton (160 pages)                                                                      For the twelve daughters of King Alberto, Queen Laurelia's death is a disaster beyond losing a mother. The king decides his daughters must be kept safe at all costs, and for the girls, those costs include their lessons, their possessions, and most importantly, their freedom. But the sisters, especially the eldest, Princess Frida, will not bend to this fate. She still has one possession her father cannot take: the power of her imagination. And so, with little but wits and ingenuity to rely on, Frida and her sisters begin their fight to be allowed to live on their own terms.The Restless Girls is a sparkling whirl of a fairy tale--one that doesn't need a prince to save the day, and instead is full of brave, resourceful, clever young women.   
  15. Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (97 pages)                                                            The winter isn't ending. Nobody knows why. And Odd has run away from home, even though he can barely walk and has to use a crutch. Out in the forest he encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle - three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is faced with a stranger journey than he had ever imagined. A journey to save Asgard, City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It's going to take a very special kind of boy to defeat the most dangerous of all the Frost Giants and rescue the mighty Gods. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever. Someone just like Odd...   
  16. The Great Divorce by CS Lewis (160 pages)                                                                              C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is a classic Christian allegorical tale about a bus ride from hell to heaven. An extraordinary meditation upon good and evil, grace and judgment, Lewis’s revolutionary idea in the The Great Divorce is that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. Using his extraordinary descriptive powers, Lewis’ The Great Divorce will change the way we think about good and evil.                                  

As I said, I'm now crowdfunding crowdfunding a second book, Asexual Myths & Tales, until 10th June 2020. Pledges start at just £1, so do follow the link if you'd like to support us.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Let’s Talk About Narnia

Authors generally have a way of talking about Narnia. I’ve noticed it at the various literature festivals I’ve been to and in articles I’ve read online. It goes something like this. “When I was a kid, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and fell in love with it. Then, at the age of 13/18/32, I noticed all the Christian symbolism and felt betrayed. I’ve never enjoyed it in the same way since.”

Whenever I hear/read this, it’s like a stab to the heart. I want to get a word in. Because my experience of Narnia is the complete reverse.

I first heard the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as told over several school playtimes by my best friend, the son of a local nonconformist minister. I went on to become completely obsessed by the whole series, reading the books over and over again. Now, I don’t know if my friend or his parents told me, or I just worked it out because I was such a religiously precocious child (I was!) but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see the Christian symbolism in Narnia. I loved it. I probably read more symbolism into it than the average university professor. Narnia was my handbook for life, second only to the Bible.

Of course, I knew even as a young teenager that this didn’t make Narnia a full-on allegory, in the style of Pilgrim’s Progress (which is basically an über sermon illustration). I remember feeling frustrated with my Mum during a theatre production of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when she asked me, “But if Aslan is God, why does he allow the Magician?” I knew that in Narnia, the story comes first.

But my moment of shock came as an undergraduate, reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and realising that the creation of the animals in The Magician’s Nephew (animals erupting out of a bubbling earth) was taken from this pagan classic. “But I thought this was a Christian book!” was my inner cry of dismay. Temporarily, I felt the same sense of betrayal my colleagues did on discovering Narnia is Christian, by discovering Narnia is not Christian.

Looking back, I feel I should have figured this out. I mean, the fauns! The centaurs! The god Bacchus! CS Lewis’s influences come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Not just classical/Norse/Celtic paganism, but the Muslim and pre-Muslim world of 1001 Nights - and I’m not just talking about The Horse and His Boy. Think of the fact that the name Aslan is Turkish for “lion” or that Jadis the White Witch is half-jinn and descends from “your father Adam’s first wife, her they call Lilith.” (1)

Lewis was a medievalist, and what you get in Narnia is a medieval world, in which the Christian, Muslim and pagan mix together in the world of story, and everything is potentially symbolic. And yes, as Michael Ward points out in his book Planet Narnia, (2) Lewis was a secretive man who delighted in hidden meanings. (In that book, Ward argues convincingly that each of the Narnia books has a secret meaning based on one of the medieval “seven planets” - Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Saturn).

When it came to the pagan creation myth, I got over it! As a writer, I now love Narnia more than I ever did. And yes, I sometimes quote it in sermons. But I know that it’s Christian imagery isn’t the be-all and end-all. Maybe it’s time for some non-Christian readers to get over it, too?

(1) LWW, “What happened after Dinner”
(2) Ward, Michael, Planet Narnia. Oxford; OUP, 2008.

Monday, 3 February 2020

A Weekend With the Brontës

I’ve just come back from a new adventure: co-leading HF Holidays’ first ever Brontë Book Club Weekend in the Yorkshire Dales. I was one of three leaders (the three sisters!) leading guests through two hours of book club style discussion of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I was in charge of the latter book, which could have been the short straw, as Anne has often been the overlooked Brontë sister. But this year is Anne’s 200th birthday, so it’s a great time to look at her work. It was encouraging to hear many of the guests say this was their favourite of the three books, due to its realistic handling of surprisingly modern topics: toxic masculinity, alcoholism, women’s lives etc.

Of course, I made sure that, when guests came to my session, they had maximum fun, so as well as deep discussion, we had games like “Which character am I?” and Pass the (Top) Hat. On Sunday afternoon we took our guests on a trip to Haworth Parsonage where, as predicted, there was a special exhibition devoted to Anne.

I must add that the venue - Newfield Hall in Malhamdale - is utterly beautiful. Spectacular setting, country house charm, roaring fires, amazing food. What more could you wish for? I even sold a few copies of my book.

Next stop, the South Downs for the Jane Austen Weekend at the end of September!