Oct 30, 2012

Neil Gaiman in conversation with Meg Rosoff at the Cambridge Theatre

The event I attended at the Cambridge Theatre in London yesterday evening was supposed to have been Neil Gaiman in conversation with Philip Pullman about Grimm’s fairy tales. Unfortunately, Philip Pullman was taken ill at the last minute, so he was replaced by Meg Rosoff. I happened to catch a tweet by Neil Gaiman before leaving home, so I wasn’t in for a disappointment when I got there. His tweet had me worried, though: at the event Rosie Boycott told us that Philip Pullman had had a fall that afternoon, and I really hope his condition is not too serious and that he recovers swiftly. She also told us that Pullman and Neil Gaiman have been trying to meet for the better part of a decade, but their meeting seems to be cursed. They were together on BBC Radio 4 discussing fairy tales that morning, but Pullman participated remotely from his home in Oxford. They would have met in person just before the event, but alas, it was not to be.

As much as I of course wish Mr Pullman were well, I have to say I was also very excited to see Meg Rosoff. If one of my favourite authors has to cancel an event at the last minute, worse things could happen than them being replaced by another one of my favourite authors. There was actually another exciting special guest that evening, but before I tell you more about that, a few words on the setting: the Cambridge Theatre is home to Matilda the musical, Tim Minchin’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, and the gorgeous reading-themed stage couldn’t have been more appropriate. I’m supposed to go see Matilda in early December, but depending on my new job’s start date and schedule I might not be able to make it after all. Still, if I don’t get to go then I’ll definitely have to see it at some point. It sounds absolutely brilliant, and I’m more excited to see it than ever now that I’ve seen the gorgeous setting.

Despite Philip Pullman’s absence, the evening was still focused on his new retellings of Grimms’ fairy tales. To start with, a story from his collection was read by a special guest, none other than the wonderful Audrey Niffenegger. She read us “The Three Snake-leaves”, a brief story where a princess and her lover are mercilessly punished for their betrayal of the king.

The conversation then opened with Neil Gaiman remarking that this kind of grim, harsh justice can be very satisfying if you’re a young child. He said that fairy tales are marked by an almost complete absence of characterisation: the heroes and heroines are solely defined by their actions, and you don’t really get to see what’s going on inside their heads. This lack of psychological complexity is exactly why fairy tales are so fun to retell. He also said he doesn’t see it as a flaw, but as the mark of a different mode of storytelling: fairy tales were part of an oral tradition, which means they were embroidered and elaborated upon in each telling. The gaps and unanswered questions are part of what gives them such lasting power – they make things interesting by giving each individual storyteller plenty of room to work in.

Meg Rosoff then added that her favourite Grimm fairy tale was one that described in only three paragraphs how a stubborn daughter disobeyed her parents, went into the woods, and got killed as a result. It was harsh and absolutely brutal, but that was part of why the story fascinated her as a child.

Neil Gaiman then talked about the history of Grimms’ fairy tales for a little bit: they weren’t originally intended for children, but rather collected as part of the Brothers Grimm’s interest in Germanic folk traditions and in the German language. However, when they realised that the collected tales were mostly being read to or by children, they sanitised them: some of the darker elements were removed, and it was also here that the original cruel mothers were replaced by stepmothers.

At this point, Meg Rosoff mentioned Tender Morsels (whose praises, she told us, she and Neil Gaiman had been singing backstage) as a modern retelling that lets some of that original darkness back into the tales. She says she sees fairy tales as blank slates that invite us to add all the emotion and psychological complexity they’re lacking. This can be done in a skilful retelling like Margo Lanagan’s; or, in the case of limpid retellings like Pullman’s, it can be done by the reader, whose mind fills in the gaps.

Neil Gaiman thinks it’s funny how we tend to remember fairy tale heroes and heroines as far more heroic than they actually are. For the most part, they’re ordinary people. When asked if modern comic book heroes where like fairy tale heroes, he said that no, not at all – fairy tale heroes don’t want to save the world or prevent evil; mostly they just want something for themselves and go for it. Their desires are the engine of the story, and everything tends to happen on a smaller scale. If there are any big heroic actions, they tend to happen by accident more than by design. Meg Rosoff added that desires and obstacles to their fulfilment are really the basic structure of any kind of story. People want things, but there’s something in their way. But then you get to elaborate on this pattern endlessly by adding the “whys” – the psychological layers that fairy tales invite us to fill in.

The simplicity of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman said, doesn’t mean they don’t tell you important things about reality. He brought up the wonderful G.K. Chesterton quote that is the epigraph to Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” A possible example of realism in fairy tales is the depiction of hunger in “Hansel and Gretel”: there’s something absolutely terrifying about the way the children’s hunger is portrayed, in their eagerness when they find the gingerbread house, and in the witch’s desire to eat them.

Rosoff then pointed out that in the original version, the children were not actually abandoned in the woods because of a famine; they were left because their parents didn’t want them anymore, which is terrifying in its own right. To this Neil Gaiman said that then again, the wonderful thing about fairy tales is that there is no original version: only different versions dating from different times. Meg Rosoff wondered whether perhaps if a story first turns up during a period of famine, you don’t need to do more than imply it for it to be terrifying; while Neil Gaiman brought up the frequent detailed descriptions of rich feasts in fairy tales that are otherwise very sparse.

When asked why there are no gods in fairy tales, Neil Gaiman said that his theory is that fairy tales might have started out as sacred stories that moved away from their religious origins over long periods of time. He told us he wonders if there might be a movement from sacred story to mythology to fairy tale, and gave “Cupid and Psyche” as an example of how this process might take place. He also mentioned the work of ethnographer Richard Dawson, who noticed that American versions of old English folktales had got rid of all the magical elements. His work was part of what inspired the concept behind American Gods.

Returning to the subject of young readers and dark stories, both Neil Gaiman and Meg Rosoff agreed that children enjoy being scared, and that there seem to be different attitudes towards this in the UK and the US. Neil believes that if you sanitize stories too much, you won’t be protecting kids but making them grow up more vulnerable; Meg Rosoff pointed out that life is often harsh and unfair and ends in death for everyone – this is something you can’t protect children from forever, so the sooner you equip them to deal with it, the better.

The evening ended with Neil Gaiman reading his brand new scary story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”: I’ve gone on and on about what a wonderful reader he is before, so needless to say it was an absolute treat and a perfect way to end the event. The story, by the way, is available for free on Audible until Halloween, and if you download it you’ll be donating to BookTrust in the UK or to DonorsChoose in the US.


  1. Neil Gaiman is also a treat but Meg Rosoff and Audrey Niffeneger too? Sorry to hear that Philip Pullman was unable to make it but it sounds like you had a wonderful time.

  2. Fantastic recap of the evening's events! Neil Gaiman really is a treat, and I'm interested to research more on Mr. Pullman. Hopefully he is faring well. I did see the Facebook note from Mr. Gaiman on the free audiobook, which I've gleefully downloaded and cannot wait to listen to it. I did listen to his narration of The Graveyard Book, which I heartily enjoyed. He really is a creative talent.

  3. I heard about this talk a bit late, but I guess it's okay now, because I'd have been very disappointed that Philip Pullman was cancelled (not to say your evening was not great! but I really want to see Pullman, while I've seen Gaiman before, as you know :)

    I just read Matilda recently and while I'm not fond of the book I heard great things about the musical. Seeing the stage now makes me really want to go and see it (and I will!).

    Lastly it's interesting to see that Audrey Niffenegger made an appearance. I'm going to see her and The Night Circus author talk on Halloween's day at Prince Charles Cinema!

  4. You are so lucky to have seen Gaiman again! It's too bad that Pullman couldn't make it, though I can see by your reaction that the replacement was no slacker! Thanks for sharing this event with us. And I must say, that stage is beautiful!

  5. Sounds an intriguing conversation. It's a shame that Pullman wasn't there to add a very English/academic-ish voice to the mix but lovely that fairytales are back in the spotlight after the vampires-and-werewolves sagas of recent years. :)

  6. Oh Ana, this sounds like it was so incredibly wonderful!!! And I definitely want Pullman's book! Have you heard anything about how he is, btw?

    I love that you mentioned "Hansel and Gretel" and the portrayal of hunger. I just read a story called "A Delicate Architecture" by Catherynne Valente. It's about the witch before Hansel and Gretel come along, and why she's so hungry for the children, and it's just absolutely wonderful! In fact, I love the collection it's in, Troll's Eye View. Have you read this one? It's one of the collections by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling for younger readers. It's all retellings from the "villians'" point of view. I enjoyed it much more than A Wolf at the Door.

    Okay, I got totally off track there. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, Ana! You write about these events in a way that both makes me feel like I was there and makes me wish even more so that I actually was!

  7. You are so lucky and I am so jealous! I wish I found out about such things in time so that I could plan a London weekend! It must have been amazing to see those authors all together.

  8. Sounds like a great event! Maybe Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman can't meet because Philip Pullman is actually Neil Gaiman from The Future and if they see each other it will create a rift in the time-space continuum. :p

  9. Hmm, I like Tasha's explanation for why the two can't meet. And I have to find Troll's-Eye view.
    There are Americans who, I think, shelter their children too much. My sister-in-law is one of them. Interestingly, we can give my niece books that she hasn't read first, and there's no problem. :-)

  10. This event sounds like it was amazing. So glad you were able to attend.

    Thanks for pointing me to the short story. I downloaded it from Audible last night. So excited to listen to it tonight.

    I was debating seeing Matilda when we were in London last month, but I was outvoted and we went to Shrek instead. Maybe next time. I'm a huge Roald Dahl fan. I hope you enjoy it!

  11. Well, I'd be pretty bummed if I was planning to see Philip Pullman and found out he was ill...but I DO think that I'd be consoled by the presence of Meg Rosoff! Wow! Kind of sucks that the meetings between Gaiman and Pullman have been cursed--that would be an amazing pair to watch.

    I didn't even know Matilda had been adapted into a musical, but it looks amazingly gorgeous! I hope that you're able to go.

    This is pretty fantastic timing for me to be reading this as I actually just finished Tender Morsels yesterday evening. I love love love fairy tales, particularly the darker aspects. I hadn't thought about some of the items discussed here before, such as the lack of characterization and heroics.

    Thanks so much for posting a recap of this event, Ana! It sounds amazing, and I wish I could have been there, but you did such a great job of reiterating the conversation.

  12. Sakura: Yes, I really did! It was wonderful to see Rosoff and Niggeneger.

    Natalie: He has just announced another event near me, so I guess that means he's doing well :D I hope you enjoyed the Neil Gaiman story!

    Mee: I completely understand being disappointed. Pullman has announced an event here for later this month, though, so I will get to see him after all :D Also, I hope you'll blog about the Halloween event! I was tempted to go myself, but the train fare to London is a bit pricey and I couldn't justify going twice in one week.

    Zibilee: Isn't it? I can't wait to see Matilda. And yes, the replacements were wonderful!

    Alex: Yes, I love a good retelling. And it turns out that Pullman is doing another event near me, so I do get to see him after all!

    Debi: He's been announcing more events, so I guess that means he's recovering! And wow, I absolutely need to get my hands on Troll Eye View. I love the premise, and Valente's story sounds wonderful.

    Joanna: Aw, it's too bad! Maybe next time! Do let me know next time you're in London, btw, since I'm only a short train ride away now.

    Tasha: Hahahaha - it all makes sense now :D

    Jeanne: Yes, they talked a bit about that. Their perspective was interesting since Meg Rosoff is American but lives in the UK and Neil Gaiman is British but lives in America.

    Kristi: I think I will! I hope you have the chance to see it next time.

    Heidi: Yes, it would have been great, but alas. Hopefully they'll try to do it again some day in the future. If I'm not mistaken, Matilda is going to Broadway next year, so hopefully you'll get the chance to see it yourself! And I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Tender Morsels.

  13. Oh, my gosh, you got to see Neil Gaiman??? AND Meg Rosoff? That is so exciting! Sounds like it was a fantastic night :)

  14. The discussion, the authors, the subject matter, I'm so jealous! Thank you for sharing this!


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