The Velvet Chamber
An Anthology of Revisioned Myth and Fairy Tale

Explore the dark side of the female psyche --A CALL FOR WRITERS supports The Velvet Chamber

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Where Mary becomes the mother of Lilith

The anima, in Jungian terminology, female energy--- should not be a fixed, universal essence, but rather an image or template that is multi-layered, malleable and flexible. With this revision perhaps the one dimensional Virgin Mother of the Bible, could collapse and embody both the woman and the goddess. It might be possible to reinscribe these archetypes as feminine heroes who are both divine and human, sacred as well as profane. Lilith can merge with Eve, and the resulting story would be both modern and ancient.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Consider the fate of Emma Bovary

We are supposed to be happy when we fall in love, and to never want anything more in life. This has been the archetypal pattern created for us. The women who read romances want to be reassured in the choices they’ve made; they do not want the form subverted, they do not want to question the plot. But feminist authors do question it, and by doing so, question cultural assumptions that inform the genre.

Falling into a fantasy, whether it takes place in a tall castle in a remote and faraway land or a small Midwestern town, the set pieces of traditional romance and fantasy never vary. The protagonists stay at home, perhaps never even aware they are constrained. Women have been raised with this plot. What else is beyond it? We are taught that to transgress these boundaries leads to madness and or death. Consider the fate of Emma Bovary.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The madwoman comes down from the attic

The madwoman is such a common trope in literature it is irresistible, almost compelling to revision her as operating from a base of strength as opposed to weakness--- a madwoman possessed of a consciousness that operates outside of the paradigm, one that is almost magical, sensing the past as well as the future. She is also acutely aware of how “crazy” women are perceived and uses this to her advantage.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Storytelling by Kirsty Logan

'And until that day, you'll have no idea just how far into the woods you've wandered.'

The children gaze up at her as she sits back, lacing her pale fingers together. She likes to scare them, to tell them horror stories disguised as folk tales. Children lured into hillsides, mutilated hands, dancing to death in red-hot shoes.

I lurk in the corner, the black widow, nursing my youngest. My breast lolls out of my dress, swollen and crinkled as rising dough. The baby's teeth nip, but after six children I do not flinch. If he bit, I'd only realise when I saw the blood.

'Once upon a time there was an evil witch, and she had a garden filled with the most wonderful…'

She's off again, the pins in her hair catching the firelight like tiny stars. How is her hair still black? I am barely thirty and already my blonde is fading, uneven white streaks like I've been left too long on a windowsill. But hers is still black, her skin powdered white, her lips painted shiny as apples. She is pale, fragile: a china doll. My mother.

Once upon a time. I should begin like one of her stories, those silly fairy-scares that keep the children clustered around her feet until the fire burns to nothing, she tires herself into silence, and I have to round them up in the cold and the dark. When I am called the wicked witch for taking them away. My own children.

So. Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl with lips blood-red, hair ebony-black, skin snow-white. She had a child, a soft blonde angel. When the child was raised, the beautiful girl's work was done: she had fulfilled her role as a woman. Her breasts emptied, her hands softened, her insides shrivelled like dead leaves. She moved slowly, thoughtfully. There was nothing to hurry for now. She was above the dirty business of men, of sex, of children. Her body did not bleed; it did not sweat or scream or cry.

She is fragile, unreal. She is pure fantasy.

And what of her beautiful blonde baby? I am swollen and stretched and sagging. Children tug at my skirts, pull me back down, clamour for more food, more toys, more stories.

The world is painted red from scraped knees, masked by the steam from bubbling pans. I crave a white room, white as my mother's skin. I crave silence.

There is no silence by the fireside, but it's as close as I can get. Instead of a maelstrom there is only one voice, one story.

'But without the enchanted crown the prince could not find her, so…'

I watch the children from half-closed eyes. The baby has slipped from my breast; he sprawls in a warm-milk stupor on my lap. I pull my dress up, my nipples wet and rubbery against the fabric.

I should stand: there are six sets of clothes to wash, six dirty dishes to scrub, six pairs of shoes to polish. No, seven. Seven, because my mother does not. Can not. That is for me, my hands raw as a huntsman's.

I should stand, I should go and… but why should I? Why should I ruin my hands, my body? Why should I be a fattened sow leaking milk, when she gets to be the china doll, the princess?

Perhaps it's time I was the storyteller.

The next night I hold court by the fireside. My hands still ache from digging in the snow and it's hard not to stare at the door, but I am determined to enjoy this.

The children bundle around my feet, eyes wide as eggs. They clamoured briefly for their usual storyteller, but when they were promised a brand new fairy-tale they hushed.

'Once upon a time there was a girl with skin as white as snow…'

I tell a story of a jealous queen, a merciful hunter, a cruel forest. I tell of seven dwarfs, a glass coffin, a girl kissed awake by a prince. I tell them that if you can save yourself once, you can save yourself twice.

By the time I scoop them into bed, I've almost managed to convince myself.

The snow has stopped falling when I go to find her. The white layer is flawless, my bare feet barely leaving tracks. My toes numbed as soon as I stepped outside and now they are starting to burn, like a fire deep in my bones. Like red-hot shoes. I press my feet further into the packed snow, making sure it numbs my ankles too. I want to know how it felt for her.

Even now I'm hoping that the story was true. That she will have been rescued, carried to a warm cottage full of the smells of baking and shoe polish. That she will be there now, waiting for her poisoned apple.

My mother lies in the middle of the clearing. Fresh snow has fallen, covering her. All I can see is her hair, spread out like a pool of oil, still black.

Kirsty Logan writes, edits, teaches, and reviews books in Glasgow, Scotland. She wrote her undergraduate dissertation on retold fairy tales and is currently working on a collection of fairytale-inspired poetry. She is still a little bit in love with wicked witches."

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Monday, June 21, 2010

How to live happily ever after (or at least how to write the story)

Your hero, your girl escapes the enclosure of marriage, the enclosure of the patriarchy. She has successfully negotiated the liminal spaces between false universals in fairy tales. She has teased out her own story where she walks right up to the mouth of death, and is willing to die, but also willing to be reborn, to the be author of her own story, to embrace the complexity of her sexuality by admitting both the sacred and the profane into her psyche.

She is powerful but she is not a witch. She is amplified, but she is not a whore. She is transformed but she doesn’t go crazy. She is also flawed.  She has eaten from the tree of knowledge. In Jungian terms, she has completed the process of individuation. She now embraces a new archetype of femininity. She is the primary agent of her authenticity, in other words:

She lives happily ever after.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Women who rescue men (and other Russian folk tales worth reading)

I received a lovely email from a fan of The Velvet Chamber, Anastasia Diatlova  where she writes at length about female heroes/female warriors of Russian fairy-tales heroic epics.  She says:

There is a common fairytale trope where the hero must go on a quest to rescue a fair maiden from captivity. Now, there are several Russian tales, where this trope is inverted. The maiden must rescue the prince who is being held captive.

For instance, The Feather of Finist the Fair Falcon, is a story where the main heroine not only chooses her own bridegroom and spends nights with him, but also must go on a quest to rescue him from a sorceress-queen. This story is, interestingly, very female driven. There are basically only two male characters: Finist and the girl’s father. All the other characters - the evil sisters, the helpful Baba Yagas (in this story there are three of them) and the sorceress-queen - are all women.

Another character is from heroic epics called Vasilisa Mikulishna. Her husband, Stavr, offends Prince Vladimir and is imprisoned. She dresses up as a Tatar envoy and using cunning, dexterity and physical strength rescues her husband and dupes the Prince.

A number of Russian fairytales focus on women who are either extremely powerful sorceresses, Vasilisa the Wise, or warriors, Mar’ia Morevna. I am certain that these stories and female characters are not unique to Russian folklore, but I distinctly remember, as a child, coming across them only in Russian fairytales.

What I find even more interesting is that Vladimir Prop, The Morphology of the Folk Tale, in his classification of narrative seems to have entirely overlooked these tales, even though, supposedly, his classification is based on Russian fairytales.
It is surprising, although, not completely unexpected that Vladimir Prop in this seminal work totally omits these fables.  In the book, he claims a a universal typology of recurring events, themes and characters.  What does it mean that he omitted the Russian fables of heroic women?  For him the functionality of the princess is inextricably tied to her father.  That limits the narrative reach of the princess.  How can you go out and rescue your husband when you are tied to your father's apron strings? 

Image:  Ivan Bilibin

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More thoughts on The Velvet Chamber

  • The Velvet Chamber wants stories that reinscribe the classic texts with a sharp feminist twist.  The heroine in traditional bodice rippers, fairy tales and even myth is always being saved or rejected or taken to new heights of ecstasy by her male lover.

  • The above are conventional paradigms; female protagonists created by men. The Velvet Chamber invites the creation of female protagonists written by women or like-minded men, free from the hegemony of patriarchal discourse,  free from the male gaze.

  • In The Velvet Chamber, the reader will meet the image of woman, an archetypal woman, written and revisioned from a feminine perspective. Fantasy, as a genre, appeals to this process because it has irreverence and a freedom in content and structure; it has the power to render social norms obsolete, as well as permission to create new ones. Female protagonists will be free to wander across time, space, as well as gender constraints.

  • Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber successfully negotiates the tricky landscape around the retelling of  fairy tales and avoids the obvious traps. She does not merely reverse the terms. The cumulative effect of reading The Bloody Chamber is to see the same virginal archetype, pushed beyond its restrictive forms and it into something transgressive--- a powerful, sexual being who is also fallible, malleable, flexible, capable of change. A woman who is human.  The Velvet Chamber aims for the same in its stories.

  • Image: Ajax and Cassandra, Solomon Joseph Solomon, 1886

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Wicked Witch

In the film, The Wizard of Oz , The Wicked Witch of the West, is an old crone with a long nose. Dressed in black, with a pointed hat, she is accompanied by an army of devilish flying monkeys, who wreak havoc wherever they go. Rapacious and thoroughly evil, she is, nevertheless, a force to be reckoned with--- because she is powerful.

She is a witch possessed of an indomitable will, she stops at nothing to get what she wants. In short, she is a female character who moves through her mythical landscape with agency and authority. In a traditional, patriarchal narrative, as this one, she is punished for her power; she dissolves into a puddle of water, becomes insubstantial, invisible. Clearly, she is a transgressive female character, who appears to be without an ounce of redemption

One might feel a stirring of pity as she is reduced to a puddle of nothingness, but more often than not, we are glad to see her go. Transgressive female characters, like the Wicked Witch of the West, are women who defy, who frighten, who challenge and who intimidate. They will not be silenced, they will not obey the rules. I want to be just like them when I grow up.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

When we dead awaken

As Adrienne Rich writes in “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision, “She goes to poetry looking for her way of being in the world, she comes up against something that negates everything she is about, she meets the image of Woman in books written by men” (21). We seem to find women, or female archetypes, who are either perpetually getting into trouble like Pandora, or Cinderella, who passively awaits her destiny.

Or we find the deeply embedded archetypes in Judeo-Christian tradition, where powerful women are punished or even reviled; Lilith, Eve and Mary Magdalene. We grew up straightjacketed by these stories, their content was never questioned; it was as axiomatic, as simple and indisputable as a mathematical equation. Many of us came of age with the notion of “woman” as a flawed creature of uncontrollable desires, whose actions seemed to frequently bring doom and destruction to herself and even those around her.

However, we are allowed to be pretty, we are allowed to be objects, put upon a pedestal, and admired. We are allowed to be draped in dresses, perfumed and made-up--- or we are shorn of our sexuality like Eve, the Virgin Mother. We, women, can’t emulate Eve,  We can’t define ourselves by her, she exists outside the framework of our knowable experience. Real women give birth, but the reproductive function is inseparable from our sexuality and our bodies. Yet, these are our contemporary myths, our feminine archetypes--- our essential woman; object, not subject.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Fall of Love by Susan Tepper

I found Susan Tepper and her excellent revision of Leda and the Swan on Fictionaut. I'm a new member, and have to say it is one of the best online sites for writers I've ever seen.  I highly recommend it.  Follow the link to learn more about her work.


Leda was named for the swan in that myth. It came to her mother while she was giving birth on acid. The entire commune watched Leda come bursting into the world. Some hippie guy, standing at her mother's head, played Blowin' in the Wind on the harmonica. A short time after, the commune had tumbled.

"What could you expect?" her mother often said over the years Leda was growing up. Her mother, May, cursing suburbia for its dull predictability, its sameness, the boredom.

May blamed the fall of love on Charles Manson. We were so happy at Fieldings Farm, she'd say, her lined blue eyes looking wistful.

Unlike her mother, Leda felt comfortable in suburbia. She liked all the little houses lined up identical except for the five different color choices. She liked when it turned pitch dark making it difficult to tell the houses apart.

Since nobody bothered locking their doors, people sometimes woke up sleeping off a drunk on the wrong sofa. Even the dogs got confused, here and there, pushing their way inside the wrong doggie-door-slot.

And that was kind of how Leda met Sam. He'd come in from Nebraska to visit his old college roommate, Charlie Mack, and didn't count correctly from the corner. Instead of counting seven houses, Sam had counted eight. Ending up in Leda's kitchen.

May had cooked some thick pea soup and they were sitting at the table, when in walked this tall guy carrying a backpack. “Heavy pack,” he said. Then, “I'm looking for Charlie Mack.”

“It could be a tune,” said May.

Sam looked puzzled taking a few steps backward.

“You came one house too many,” May explained.

He still looked confused scratching his pale chin stubble.

“The houses, they're all the same,” said Leda feeling a rush of heat in her ears. “In the dark you can't pick out the colors.”

Sam had stayed on for soup. He kept looking at Leda, then toward May as if to ask was it OK he kept looking at Leda.

That night he went to bed with both of them. First Leda. Then the swan.

Image: Leda and the Swan, 1530, Michelangelo

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Strange and secret peoples

The modern bride, dressed in a long white gown, is a relatively new phenomenon, popularized in the Victorian Era and contrary to the current zeitgeist, the color white symbolized joy, not purity. Off all the bridal raiment one sees today in popular culture, the veil is the oldest of these. Wedding ceremonies have taken place all through recorded history, although the word “bride” is first used in the modern context in the 9th century in England (OED). What is a woman enacting in a couture gown in a cathedral, or a cotton sundress on the beach at dawn, what is the lure and the draw of this ritual?

One of the earliest references can be found, not surprisingly in mythology. The Celtic goddess, Brigid, according to Robert Graves in his book, The White Goddess, belongs to the trinity of the triple moon goddess, who occurred through Indo European mythology. She was one of the most widely worshipped goddesses in Celtic Britain. In the triad, she represents the maiden, and is associated with healing, creativity, wisdom and childbirth--- all transformative actions.

Brigid took over from the winter goddess, the hag, and only women were allowed at her ceremonies. She is later Christianized as St. Brigit in Ireland. In the highlands, she became St. Bride, foster mother to Jesus Christ. Is it possible that her magic, and her iconography persevered and became encoded in the Fairy Bride of the Victorian Era? Folklorists believed that her cult like devotion stretched far into the Victorian Era when we first see the bride as fairy princess.

Traditionally, the fairy bride is non human or enchanted, living beneath the sea in a magical place, but is captured by a mortal man and is transformed by marriage to him. She lives her life as a mortal being, bearing children and resigned to her fate. Yet one day she finds her garment that she shed when the transformation occurred, she slips back into it and escapes back beneath the sea, becoming once again an enchanted creature. She is then a powerful creature, perhaps her antecedent is Brigid or St. Bride, a goddess in disguise, and not subject to the laws of ordinary women.

According to Carole Silver in Strange and Secret Peoples, this fairy tale rose in prominence in the Victorian Era, just as marriage laws were being revised--- at stake the power or rather powerlessness of women. Early folklorists ignored the autonomy and strength of the fairy bride and the fairy society she inhabited, they “found the subject of fairy brides married to mortal men disturbing” (94).  Of course they did, that might imply the women were something more than decoration.

And since wives were still considered property, this interpretation was far too dangerous. Certainly if she is descended, at least in part from the powerful Celtic goddess, Brigid, and not an impoverished Catholic substitute, there was good reason to be concerned. Whether she was the Swan Maiden, the Fairy Bride, or the Seal Bride, she might really be functioning as an encoded, underground assertion of female power, through the ritual of the wedding.

It is at this juncture of fairy tales, myth and real life gender struggles that the story of the modern bride is born. There were certainly always a set of rituals accompanied by an announcement and subsequent wedding of a young man and a young woman. The rice and the bridal cake, for example, symbolized a wish for fertility, and all of these rituals worked to “effect real and perhaps long lasting transformation in the lives of the ritual participants” (Otnes and Pleck, 4).

Before the Victorian Era, women had simply worn their best dress on their wedding day. However, the idea of dressing up as a fairy princess, in a long white gown, worn only once on her special day, with a veil, was new--- and eagerly embraced. She became the living embodiment of ritual and magic fed by myth and popular fairy tales.  But who exactly is hiding beneath that veil?  And is she dangerous?


Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Otnes, Cele C., and Elizabeth H. Pleck. Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003.

Silver, Carol G. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Why doesn't she cut off his head?

Possible historical antecedents for the trope of the monster bride groom, most notably in Blue Beard. 

• Gilles de Rais, affiliated with Joan of Arc, 15th Marshall of France, after driving the English out of France,  retires to his estate, studies alchemy and magic, while young peasant boys begin to disappear. When at last the Duke of Brittany intervened, the remains of over fifty boys were found in his castle. De Rais was hanged and burned at the same time in 1440.

• Cunmar the Accursed, an old Breton tale, was the ruler of Brittany in the mid 6th century. The last of his wives, Triphine, heavily pregnant, enters his ancestral chapel where she is warned of her fate by blood stained ghosts of his former wives. She escapes, but he captures her and cuts off her head. Her body is found by a monk, destined to become a saint. He magically reattaches her head, and causes Cunmar’s castle to collapse down around him. Triphine delivers her child, gives it to the monk, and performs good deeds for the rest of her life. The ghost of Cunmar roams the countryside in the form of a werewolf.

What if someone told Triphine's story as an antidote to the western version where Beauty falls in love with the Beast and marries him. How crazy is that?

Illustration:  Edmund Dulac

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Marina Warner

No book or blog or anthology on myth would be complete without the work of Marina Sarah Warner; novelist, critic and cultural historian.  The excerpt from this essay was published in The Liberal, "a magazine  dedicated to a renaissance in liberal politics and the liberal arts."

On Myth by Marina Warner

"WRITERS don’t make up myths; they take them over and recast them. Even Homer was telling stories that his audience already knew. If some individuals present weren’t acquainted with Odysseus’s wanderings or the Trojan War, and were listening in for the first time (as I was when a child, enthralled by the gods and goddesses in H.A. Guerber’s classic retelling), they were still aware that this was a common inheritance that belonged to everyone. Its single author – if Homer was one at all – acted as a conduit of collective knowledge, picking up the thread and telling it anew.

In an inspired essay on ‘The Translators of The Arabian Nights’, Jorge Luis Borges praises the murmuring exchanges of writers across time and cultures, and points out that the more literature talks to other literatures, and reweaves the figures in the carpet, the richer languages and expression, metaphors and stories become. Borges wasn’t a believer in anything – not even magic – but he couldn’t do without the fantastic and the mythological. He compiled a wonderfully quixotic and useful bestiary, The Book of Imaginary Beings, to include the fauna of world literature: chimeras and dragons, mermaids and the head-lolling catoblepas whose misfortune is to scorch the earth on which he tries to graze with his pestilential breath. But Borges also included some of his own inventions – The Creatures who Live in Mirrors, for example, a marvelous twist on the idea of the ghostly double."

Read the rest of this excellent essay

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), Pandora.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A warning

"Cultural myth has come through the mouths of priests and is therefore not trustworthy as the oral myth.  Cultural myth records what happened, it is fixed, static, and freezes in a pattern which is an inflexible expression of the cultural time and place.  When metaphorical surface becomes ritual, the God no longer wears a human body or speaks for itself."

--- Thelma J. Shinn,  Worlds Within Women: Myth and Mythmaking in Fantastic Literature by Women

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Angelique, the archetypal bride

On my wedding day, I stood in a waist high field of flowers adjusting my veil, it was ivory lace, hand sewn with seed pearls so that it glistened like a constellation in the sunlight. It was early morning and already it a hot day--- I and my maids hung back underneath the shade of an ancient tree. They were dressed in long gowns of raw silk and fine linen. One of the younger girls pulled miniature strawberries off the vine, and another had taken off her slippers and dipped her feet into the nearby pond.

The tall grasses hummed with cicadas, the very air around me seemed to vibrate--- like the music of the spheres. My maid servant, Emily served mulled wine in silver cups emblazoned with my family crest and one small perfect sapphire. But I did not touch a drop. I was already light headed and ready to faint with joy. Soon the procession would begin, soon my groom and his men would meet us and we would walk together, process up the road to be married.

I knew beyond the valley of pomegranates, there were hundreds of people waiting in a clearing, a natural amphitheater, where red silk canopies and bowers filled with violets and ivy and daisies, were hung from the trees, and many casks of wine, for it was to be the finest wedding in the land. I vowed to remember the perfection of this moment for all time. Off in the distance, we heard the echo of bells ringing, then saw a cloud of dust rising up on the horizon, the men were arriving. I watched as Emily gathered together the silver cups on the tray while my maids straightened their gowns and placed sprigs of wild flowers in their hair.

They came into view, processing down the road, carrying standards, royal blue and scarlet emblazoned with the family crest, a mandala, and the inscription, Aurora Consurgens. A few feet behind them, my groom, my love, walked slowly and joyously carrying cut branches of dogwood and crocuses, the petals gently dropping down, littering the dirt road with bright spots of color. And behind him, a young child, a girl with golden blond hair, ringing two sterling bells. I stood tall while my handmaids draped me in long gold strands of gold and malachite, then a bouquet of violets wrapped in lavender ribbon.

As they men approached, the maids joined them in turn. I waited patiently for my lover to appear, and when he did, we locked eyes and I rushed out to join him. The procession and the music stopped while we linked arms. The child began ringing the bells again, quietly--- and we all began to process, men and women, but in a slower more stately rhythm, until we rounded a gentle curve in the road and entered into the valley of pomegranates, and then beyond a field of wild flowers where the tall grasses and stalks of milk weed brushed up against my gown, and then down into the amphitheater where the entire village waited for the ceremony to begin.

to be continued...

Note:  This story is inspired by CG Jung's memoir.  He writes about a dream he had in a near-death state: 

I was Rabbi Simon ben Jochai, whose wedding in the afterlife was being celebrated.  It was the mystic marriage as it appears in Cabbalistic tradition...I do not know exactly what part I played in it.  At bottom it was I myself.  I was the marriage...I walked up a wide valley to the end, where a gentle chain of hills began.  The valley ended  in a classical amphitheater.  It was magnificently situated in the green landscape...All-father Zeus and Hera consummated the mystic marriage, as it is described in the Iliad.

Image:  Marc Chagall