Lost Hearts: A Gothic Love Story

Mary Wollstonecraft’s St. Pancras Grave, 1797

The poet Shelley was drawn to the young Mary Godwin due to her melancholy habit of reading on her mother’s grave; the gothic site of their courtship; it’s said to be where they consummated their passion….

Mary Shelley, 2017 film

When Shelley died in 1822 Mary is rumoured to have kept his heart in a silken shroud, carrying it with her for years (his remains were in Rome). After she died the heart was supposedly found in her desk wrapped in his poems. It’s hard to out goth that!

Embalmed heart

The treasured heart was buried with Mary in St Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth (and memorialised as ‘the heart of Percy Bysshe, her husband the poet’).  The remains of her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft were moved to the same plot in 1851 when St. Pancras Churchyard was broken up for the railroad. This extraordinary family, tragically separated and estranged in life, were finally united in one tomb in death.

Plaque also memorialising the heart

 ‘My companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more’ (Mary Shelley, October 15, 1831)

‘My heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world’ (Mary Shelley, 1823, aged just 26)

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CFPs: Gothic folklore, chimeras, fairy-tale horror, Dracula and vampires

Some CFPs for articles and a conference–deadlines approaching!

1. FOGO Conference 2023: Folklore and Gothic: Supernatural Presences and Environments in Europe and the Americas

Universidad de León (España), 5-7 July 2023. Deadline: 1 April 2023.

This conference aims to open a space of dialogue to analyze the intersections of Gothic and folklore, focusing on fairy tales, the representation of nature, and the treatment of horror. What is the relevance of the ghosts, cemeteries and stormy nights that remain in our subconscious as images and spaces of fear? How can fictional horror represent the climate emergency? How can we explore literature, film and other media through the lens of the monster and the ghost? Ultimately, what is the interaction between folklore, horror and the Gothic?

2. Creature Redux: Considering the Pasts, Presents, and Futures of Chimera in Fiction and Popular Culture

Academic anthology edited by Samantha Baugus and Ayanni Cooper. Deadline: 31 March 2023.

This collection aims to combine the meanings of chimera in our own chimerical creation–monster, animal, mythological, fantastical–to propose a “neither this nor that,” but an “all of the above.” Though we look to center fictional representations of chimera, we encourage writers to think broadly about the figure and what she could be or represent across genres and time.

Through this collection, we look to investigate junctions, crossings, and mixtures of creatures that push, challenge, and distort the boundaries of the human in numerous ways. What the human is, has been, or could be is a question that possesses serious and highly relevant implications in our contemporary moment. How does the chimera’s inherent hybridity complicate our understanding of the familiar and the other? We seek analyses that center the idea of the chimera in fictional texts of any medium, genre, place, or time period.

3. Special Issue ‘Severed Limbs and Monstrous Appetites: (Re)Defining Fairy-Tale Horror from the Seventeenth Century to the Present’

Special issue of Literature journal. Deadline: 30 April 2023.

If horror and the fairy tale are so easily intermingled, can horror then be considered as a distinctive feature of the literary fairy tale? In ‘Bluebeard’ (1697), after all, Perrault creates an atmosphere of mystery and expectation of violence before describing Bluebeard’s closet, which contains the numerous corpses of his murdered wives, whose clotted blood covers the floor. Blood, bodily mutilation, and body parts are in fact extensively represented in fairy tales. Before Disney’s sanitized film adaptations, tales such as the Grimm’s versions of ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’ (1812) depicted horrific images, such as severed limbs, cannibalism, and other types of bodily violence. As far as cannibalism is concerned, the Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and Perrault’s ‘Le Petit Poucet’ are among the most famous stories, but cannibalistic acts or desires are also central in lesser-known tales, such as Perrault’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or the Grimm’s ‘The Juniper Tree’.

What are the roles, functions, and meanings of horror in a fairy-tale narrative? This Special Issue of Literature aims to answer this question.

4. Journal of Dracula Studies

Call for scholarly articles. Deadline: 1 May 2023.

We invite manuscripts of scholarly articles (4000-6000 words) on any of the following: Bram Stoker, the novel Dracula, the historical Dracula, the vampire in folklore, fiction, film, popular culture, and related topics.

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CFPs: Byron, monsters, the Brontës, SFF, fairytale horror

We’ve been very lax about adding news to the blog lately and we do apologise (work pressure, ill health, project deadlines, etc.). However, there does seem to be a lot going on and here are some recent CFPs for conferences and articles. Deadlines are approaching so do pay attention to that.

1. The International Association of Byron Societies, 47th Annual Conference

7-11 August 2023, University of San Francisco, California. Deadline: 1 March 2023.

In bicentenary tribute, the IABS 2023 conference will gather work on Byron and Romantic-era resistance while seeking to honor the global diversity of the Romantic age. Our gathering’s theme is “New Worlds,” and we invite papers both on and beyond Byron and his circle.

2. 2023 Festival of Monsters

The Center For Monster Studies, 13-15 October 2023, Santa Cruz. Deadline: 1 March 2023.

Our 2023 Festival of Monsters (Oct. 13-15 in beautiful Santa Cruz) includes an academic conference, performances, readings, presentations from monster-makers in theatre, film and television, and events in association with an exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) entitled Werewolf Hunters, Jungle Queens, and Space Commandos: The Lost Worlds of Women Comics Artists.
We invite proposals for 20-minute papers or presentations on any aspect of monsters or monster studies.

3. The Brontë Society Conference: How beautiful the earth is still

Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, 9 September 2023. Deadline: 1 March 20203.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum’s 2023 programme will explore and celebrate all things connected with our landscape, a landscape inextricably linked with the Brontës: animals, habitats, trees, flowers, foliage, weather, and more.  Our events and activities will complement our special exhibition, The Brontës and the Wild, and draw on the theme of the natural world, providing opportunities to engage with issues and ideas around climate change and environmental sustainability.

4. Current Research in Speculative Fiction 2023, 12th Annual Conference

University of Liverpool, In Person and Online, 29–30 June 2023. Deadline: 25 March 2023.

Whether it is science fiction, fantasy, or horror, speculative fiction allows us to envision transformed worlds full of dread,
excitement, and wonder so utterly different from our own. We escape to imagine wizards who unravel reality, men who transform into cockroaches, and spaceships that warp time, all the while uncovering more about our past, present and future than many forms of conventional fiction. For CRSF’s 12th year, this hybrid event (taking place both in person and online) seeks to generate interdisciplinary discussions of metamorphosis in speculative fiction, exploring the transformations the genre allows and how changes both minuscule and grand manifest themselves within textual and visual cultures in the present day.

5. Severed Limbs and Monstrous Appetites: (Re)Defining Fairy-Tale Horror from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, Literature special issue

A special issue of Literature (ISSN 2410-9789). Deadline for manuscript submissions: 30 April 2023.

If horror and the fairy tale are so easily intermingled, can horror then be considered as a distinctive feature of the literary fairy tale? In ‘Bluebeard’ (1697), after all, Perrault creates an atmosphere of mystery and expectation of violence before describing Bluebeard’s closet, which contains the numerous corpses of his murdered wives, whose clotted blood covers the floor. Blood, bodily mutilation, and body parts are in fact extensively represented in fairy tales. Before Disney’s sanitized film adaptations, tales such as the Grimm’s versions of ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’ (1812) depicted horrific images, such as severed limbs, cannibalism, and other types of bodily violence. As far as cannibalism is concerned, the Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and Perrault’s ‘Le Petit Poucet’ are among the most famous stories, but cannibalistic acts or desires are also central in lesser-known tales, such as Perrault’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or the Grimm’s ‘The Juniper Tree’.
What are the roles, functions, and meanings of horror in a fairy-tale narrative? This Special Issue of Literature aims to answer this question.

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Christmas 2022

John Leech, The Ghost of Christmas Present (from Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol) (1843)

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our followers!

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Marcus Sedgwick (1968-2022)

We are very saddened to hear of the death of August Sedgwick, who wrote as Marcus Sedgwick, on 15 November.

August was a brilliant writer who wrote novels for children, young adults, and adults (though he wasn’t fond of the ‘YA’ classification and, like many novels with YA protagonists, his intelligent and deeply engaging books have value for readers beyond this group). His fictions are frequently historical narratives, often tinged with the fantastic or Gothic. I would single out as personal favourites White Crow (2010) and Midwinterblood (2011), but they are all marvellous. August was nominated for and awarded many prestigious literary prizes. He also wrote a dystopian graphic novel (Dark Satanic Mills (2013), with his brother Julian), a picture book, illustrated a folklore collection, reviewed books for the Guardian, published guides on coping with chronic illness, and wrote literary essays (of which more below).

August had collaborated with OGOM from our very first conference, Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture, in 2010 where he gave a fascinating plenary talk on his adaptation of the folkloric vampire in his novels My Swordhand is Singing (2006) and The Kiss of Death (2008). We then invited him to our Bram Stoker Centenary Symposium in 2012 where he was in conversation with Kevin Jackson. He returned as a similarly engaging keynote speaker at further conferences and symposia: ‘The Company of Wolves’: Sociality, Animality, and Subjectivity in Literary and Cultural Narratives—Werewolves, Shapeshifters, and Feral Humans (2015); ‘Some curious disquiet’: Polidori, the Byronic vampire, and its progeny (2019); The Black Vampyre and Other Creations: Gothic Visions of New World (2020); Nosferatu at 100: The Vampire as Contagion and Monstrous Outsiders (2022). He wrote a special vampire story for the participants of the Polidori event. He also contributed incisive essays to three of our books: ‘The elusive vampire: folklore and fiction – writing My Swordhand is Singing’, in Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day (2013); ‘Wolves and lies: a writer’s perspective’, in In the Company of Wolves: Werewolves, Wolves, and Wild Children (2020); and ‘Sexual contagions: Vampirism and tuberculosis; or, “I should like to die of a consumption”’, in The Legacy of John Polidori: The Romantic Vampire and its Progeny (2023). He generously spared time to talk to Sam’s students on several occasions. One of his finest books, Midwinterblood (2011), was, August told us, inspired in part by his collaboration with OGOM on vampire research:

working with OGOM and the team around Dr Sam George has encouraged me to voyage more deeply into the relationship between folklore and fiction, and I can see the result in all my work. It has been consistently inspired, enriched and informed by it . . . I strongly see a connection between this work with OGOM and a book I wrote some time later, Midwinterblood, perhaps the book for which I am best known. The Monsters We Deserve was very influenced by our discussions and my thinking about gothic monsters. One of the central questions . . . was inspired by OGOM!!.

(Midwinterblood won the Michael L. Printz Award, America’s most prestigious prize for writing for Young Adults).

We came to know August as a good friend. He was intelligent, erudite, and engrossing in conversation, and a sensitive and amusing companion. His generosity to other writers is well testified to on social media. A lovely man. His passing is a terrible loss.

(Sam will be posting a fuller tribute with her own personal reflections later.)


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Breaking Through to Faery

Thank you to everyone who attended our Breaking Through to Faery: Re-enchantment and the Gothic Folklore of Fungi event on 19th November. We had 177 bookings and the event sold out after just a few days of the tickets being released! There were some accompanying posts on Twitter in the build up to the day including threads on Mushrooms in Fiction and Mushrooms in Film and Seeing Fairies. We launched a new hashtag #GothicFungi #BeingHuman2022 and a full Breaking Through to Faery Twitter ‘Moment’ after the event.

Fungi-inspired snacks – these ones are definitely edible!
Eat Me!

We conceived ‘Breaking Through to Faery’ to create a sense of wonder in the everyday and to re-enchant the local landscape after the confines of lockdown and the pandemic.  It was developed around the themes of folklore, fungi, enchantment and the Gothic and it celebrated a unique collaboration between the Open Graves, Open Minds research group (OGOM) at the University of Hertfordshire and the newly launched Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic in Todmorden, West Yorkshire.

Todmorden is an ex-mill town in Yorkshire; it is a place of folklore and natural beauty. It is hoped that our attendees were inspired by their journey into the botanical gothic and that they will discover more about the natural environment and its folklore. We would like our theme of re-enchantment to combat the sense of ennui many people feel as a result of the pandemic. We hope to foster creativity, generate excitement, and reawaken a sense of awe and wonder about life in regions such the Calder Valley, celebrating its folkloric landscapes and gothic possibilities.

This is the moment when I found fairyland hidden in a rotten tree stump; it really exemplifies the sense of enchantment about the natural world that we wanted to capture!

event poster

The event was funded by the Being Human Festival. Being Human is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities. A celebration of humanities research through public engagement, it is led by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, the UK’s national centre for the pursuit, support and promotion of research in the humanities. The festival works in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy to support humanities public engagement across the UK.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Breakthroughs’. We interpreted this as existing at the intersection of folklore and the Gothic. Fungal networks beneath the ground can break through into the seen world as magical fairy rings; we saw our event as similarly enchanting and transforming, connecting our research to the communities around it.   

Proudly showing off a newly created mushroom
creating mushrooms with grandad

Attendees took part in a range of activities and were introduced to a new concept of botanical gothic:

Family Craft Activity: ‘Build a Mushroom Forest in Papier Mache’

With lead-in activity involving children from Shade Primary School, led by Holly Elsdon, exploring storytelling on the theme of fungi and enchantment and introducing the idea of foraging

Gothic Flash Fiction Writing

40-50 words on the theme of breakthroughs, or fungi, fairy enchantment and the Gothic. Led by Sam George and Bill Hughes from OGOM Project (to be published on the OGOM blog).  

Here are some sample entries:

Silently, covertly, we spring up in the gloom to share our secret commonwealth. Nobody sees us or understands us, except the fairies, fauns and elves, and those uncanny ones clandestinely hovering betwixt humans and angels.

Arcane messages surge along the silver mycelial fibres underground. Above, we are surrounded by these alien consumers of the dead, this Faery Circle, like fungal dolmens. We should never have strayed inside. Yet now we break through to enchanted communion with another world, beyond the living.

Fungi Identification Activity

With Roze from Thyme for Tiffin. 

Roze from Thyme for Tiffin Above
inspecting Birch Polypore
getting up close and personal with jelly ears!
ooh handling Birch Polypore

Tea and Fungi-Themed Cakes

Made by Thyme for Tiffin from locally sourced fungi and flowers.

Exhibition: Photographing Fungi

By Holly Elsdon (with words by Clare Slack).

Illustrated Talk: Journeying into the Botanical Gothic

With Sam George, Convenor of the OGOM Project

There were some fantastic mushroom-inspired crafts and displays throughout the centre on the day too. It was a real fungi feast for the eyes! The fungi exhibition is still open so do visit it and you can pop into the Centre and see all the wonderful toadstool-inspired creations too.

If you attended, we do hope you enjoyed it. We will be gathering our feedback shortly and we’re looking forward to getting your responses. Thank you to everyone who took part. Special thanks go to Holly Elsdon at the Centre for Folklore, Myth and Magic for her energy and creativity and to Dr Bill Hughes of OGOM for his work on the admin and his warm support on the day. Gothtastic!

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Gramarye ‘Ill met by moonlight’ special issue

The ‘Ill met by moonlight’ special issue of Gramarye: The Journal of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction, guest edited by Sam and I, is now available to preorder here.

John Anster Fitzgerald (1823-1906), Fairies Looking Through a Gothic Arch

This special issue has emerged out of our very successful international online conference which we held 8-11 April 2011: ‘Ill met by moonlight’: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture. The essays cover a range of topics concerning Gothic Faerie, plus flash fiction on the conference theme from our competition and book reviews. It’s a sumptuously produced publication and we hope you’ll enjoy it! You can see the Table of Contents here.

Many thanks to all the contributors and to Heather Robbins and Paul Quinn at Gramarye. We’ve really enjoyed collaborating with the Chichester Centre, whose research interests overlap with those of OGOM, and we look forward to future cooperation. We are also aiming at compiling another special journal issue and an edited collection in book form of further research from the conference in 2023.

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OGOM Hallowe’en 2022

Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch (1942)

OGOM are involved in some very exciting and spooky events this Hallowe’en. We will be distributing our stylish new OGOM postcards as informative souvenirs of the events and our Project.

Blood and Celluloid Vampire Film Festival

First, on 15 October, Sam and I were invited to introduce the Blood and Celluloid Vampire Film Festival at the Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford (part of the BFI’s national In Dreams are Monsters programme–it’s worth checking out the rest of this). This is a beautiful independent cinema, run by Tom Jowett and his team, and we were made very welcome and had a great time, with five of the best vampire films being shown.

Werewolves and the Gothic

22 October: Sam will be talking on ‘Werewolves and the Gothic: In Search of the Spectre Wolf’ at 1.30 on 22nd October at Brompton Cemetery, London. Tickets are still available and the event includes gin cocktails in a fabulously Gothic cemetery setting! This is part of the London Month of the Dead Festival.

Beauty into Beast film festival

13 November–4 December: Again as part of the BFI’s In Dreams are Monsters season, Dr Kaja Franck will be involved in the Beauty into Beast: Women, Werewolves and Wild Shapeshifters season at the Electric Cinema, Birmingham. Kaja will be introducing the fabulous The Company of Wolves; the event begins 17 November at 19.45.

Recovering the Vampire conference

4-5 November: Sam and I are participating in the online conference Recovering the Vampire: Degeneration to Regeneration, organised by Dr Madeline Potter and Dr Laura Eastlake for Edge Hill University. Sam’s paper is ‘Folkloric vampire at the crossroads: Superstition, recovery, and redemption’ and my paper is ‘Regenerating genre and society through YA Gothic dystopia in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown’. This is free to attend (though a donation to assist early career scholars is welcomed); Registration will remain open until 24 October.

Breaking Through to Faery

19 November: Sam is collaborating in an event with Holly Elsdon of the Todmorden Centre for Folklore, Myth, and Magic. This OGOM event, Breaking Through to Faery: Re-enchantment and the Gothic Folklore of Fungi, is part of the nationwide Being Human Festival and we’re very grateful for receiving funding from them. Tickets are unfortunately now fully booked.

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The Little Mermaid and exclusion

OGOM and the appeal of the mermaid

Mermaids (and other fabulous marine creatures such as sirens and selkies) have long been favourite topics with us at OGOM. Three’s something appealing about their ambiguous positioning between human and animal, aquatic and land-dwelling. We’ve posted articles on the blog before (just search for ‘mermaids’ etc.).

Sam has had a particular interest in the Japanese yokai ‘mermaid’, Amabie, as her conference paper and journal article discussed here illustrate. Here’s the actual article, ‘Amabie goes viral: the monstrous mercreature returns to battle the Gothic Covid-19′, Critical Quarterly, 4 (December 2020), 32-40.

I’ve also been doing research into literary manifestations of the mermaid, particularly reworkings of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ in YA fantasy. I’ll post the fruits of this research on here at some point. In the meantime, these past posts point to various resources on the mermaid figure: ‘Mermaids: ballads, novels, films‘ and ”Merpeople and Monstrous Lovers‘. There’s also the beginnings of a Bibliography here; we’re working on making this much more comprehensive and having at as a resource page in the same way we’ve done vampires.

In the meantime, here’s an excellent article from The Conversation by Michelle Smith (Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, Monash University) on the current controversy over the depiction of the mermaid in Disney’s new film, The Little Mermaid:

The Little Mermaid has always been a story about exclusion – and its author was an outsider

Edmund Dulac/IMDB.

Michelle Smith, Monash University

Disney’s forthcoming live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid has sparked an astonishing backlash. The trailer for the 2023 film was met with millions of dislikes on YouTube, seemingly because the mermaid is played by Halle Bailey, a Black actress.

The 1989 animated Disney film, on which the upcoming film is based, featured a red-headed mermaid named Ariel (and a singing crab with a Jamaican accent). The implication of much of the recent criticism is that a Black mermaid is not “authentic” to The Little Mermaid fairy tale.

But fairy tales are continually retold in new ways over time.

Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy tale is radically different to the 1989 film. He was a bisexual social outsider who struggled to express his desires. And his The Little Mermaid was not the happily-ever-after romance Disney fans are familiar with, but a tale of torturous unrequited love – which he worked on while a man he was infatuated with was getting married. https://www.youtube.com/embed/Qp4yfmOOv6Q?wmode=transparent&start=0 Black girls react joyfully to The Little Mermaid trailer.

The first Cinderella was Chinese

Outrage over fairy tales crossing cultural and racial boundaries is misguided. Variations of most popular tales are found in multiple cultures, and familiar tale types have a history of circling the globe. The way they’re told has adapted, too: from being shared orally, to literary versions (from the 17th century), and now film, television and games (from the 20th century).

Indeed, the very reason fairy tales have endured is because they are continually retold in new ways, to suit changing audiences and cultural norms.

The first recorded Cinderella variant, for example, is Yeh-Hsien, from China. It was first published around 850; while Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, which influenced most adaptations we know today, was published in 1697. Yeh-Hsien does not have the aid of a fairy godmother; instead, she wishes on the bones of a fish. If fairy tales should only “belong” to the first culture in which they were ever told or written, then it would be logical to suggest we should only depict Cinderella as Chinese. https://www.youtube.com/embed/xpacm4ET-Cs?wmode=transparent&start=0 The story of Yeh-Hsien is the first recorded variant of Cinderella.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid

Disney’s animated adaptations, beginning with Snow White in 1937, have come to define our cultural understanding of fairy tales. It’s one reason why we’ve lost our cultural awareness of the diverse origins and traditions surrounding these tales. And these films, aimed at a family audience, sanitise earlier fairy tale variants – which were often more gruesome and disturbing than their Disney adaptations. https://www.youtube.com/embed/GC_mV1IpjWA?wmode=transparent&start=0 The story of Disney’s Little Mermaid, Ariel, is very different from Hans Christian Andersen’s original.

Unlike the Disney films, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is a tragic story of suffering and extreme sacrifice. P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, wrote about her dislike of the mermaid’s protracted agony and found Andersen’s “tortures, disguised as piety” to be “demoralizing”.

Many of Andersen’s protagonists are small and delicate figures who arouse our sympathy. This frailty can be due to being poor and uncared for, as in The Little Match Girl. Or it can result from characters who are unable to move without difficulty. The tiny Thumbelina must be carried from one location to another. And the Little Mermaid walks with the sensation of metal blades piercing her feet with every step.

The Little Mermaid is also a prime example of Andersen’s focus on female sacrifice and suffering. For a start, she has her tongue cut out by the sea witch and is made mute. And she maintains her delicate femininity with her “lovely, floating” walk on her hard-won human legs, despite the severe pain that is the cost of her bargain.

The mermaid saves the Prince on two occasions. First, she risks her life to rescue him from a shipwreck. Andersen’s fairy tale is not a love story, however, because the Prince never romantically desires the mermaid. He is impressed by her devotion but treats the mermaid like an animal or a child. He even gives her “permission to sleep on a velvet cushion at his door”.

The ultimate self-sacrifice of the Little Mermaid is evident when the Prince marries another woman and the mermaid holds the train of her wedding dress, while thinking only “of her death and of all she had lost in this world”.

The sea witch had promised that if the mermaid could make the prince fall in love with her, she would gain an immortal soul. If not, she would die of a broken heart on the first day after his marriage to someone else – and become sea foam on the waves. When she is faced with the choice to kill the Prince and rejoin her family in her mermaid form, she sacrifices her own life instead.

Andersen as outsider

Andersen’s sad personal life unavoidably influences how his stories of downtrodden and pitiful characters are interpreted. In the case of the Little Mermaid, there is a close connection between the writing of the story and Andersen’s own feelings of isolation and rejection.

Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen was a social outsider who never married – and potentially never had sex. He did become infatuated with both men and women and is therefore understood as bisexual. Yet he struggled to express his desires, an issue related to a series of complex psychological problems.

One of the men Andersen loved was his friend Edvard Collin, who did not return Andersen’s feelings. Biographer Jackie Wullschläger notes that The Little Mermaid was written “at the height of Andersen’s obsession with and renunciation of Edvard Collin”. When Collin’s marriage to a woman was held in August of 1836, Andersen intentionally remained on the Danish island of Funen in order to avoid the wedding. There, he continued to work on The Little Mermaid.

It is possible to view the Little Mermaid failing to gain an eternal soul through marriage to the Prince as Andersen rejecting the idea that immortality must depend on love being reciprocated. As Wullschläger suggests, Andersen likely equated himself, a bisexual, with the mermaid’s understanding of herself as a different species to humans.

Andersen wrote that he deliberately avoided the convention found in other mermaid fiction, such as Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine (1811), in which human love enables the acquisition of a soul:

I’m sure that’s wrong! […] I won’t accept that sort of thing in this world. I have permitted my mermaid to follow a more natural, more divine path.

Andersen’s tales frequently promote his Christian religious ethics. The path to salvation with God that Andersen maps often entails a cheerful embrace of pain, suffering, or humiliation. Maria Tatar comments that Andersen’s protagonists embrace death “joyfully”. They “reproach themselves for their sins and endorse piety, humility, passivity, and a host of other ‘virtues’ designed to promote subservient behaviour”.

The mermaid and her sisters rescue the Prince. Stephen Reid

Most of Andersen’s protagonists are female. Fairy tales in the 19th century, such as those of the Brothers Grimm, commonly sought to direct the behaviour and morality of girls. In the case of the Little Mermaid, her harsh treatment and ultimate fate can be understood as punishment for her sexual curiosity in pursuing the Prince. It’s also a caution against attempting to leave the undersea home where she belongs.

The conclusion of Andersen’s tale transforms the Little Mermaid into sea foam and then a “daughter of the air” who may gain a soul after 300 years of compassionate, self-sacrificial behaviour. The moral educational function of fairy tales is especially evident in this ending. Child readers are informed their own good acts will shorten the length of time the Little Mermaid (and the other daughters of the air) must wait by one year, while bad acts will lengthen their wait.

Diversifying and adapting fairy tales

Disney’s original, animated The Little Mermaid departs radically from Hans Christian Andersen’s published fairy tale. Some of these changes reflect developments in ideas about the purpose of stories of children. Young characters undergoing extreme self-sacrifice and unhappy endings now rarely appear in stories for children.

Disney’s transformation of a story of salvation and religious devotion into a straightforward romance is but one example of how fairy tales lend themselves to retelling in new contexts. The live-action adaptation starring Halle Bailey, which seeks to make children of colour feel represented in fairy tales, is one more iteration of the story.

This attempt to diversify fairy-tale adaptations builds on the queer history of The Little Mermaid. The story is already understood as having parallels with Andersen’s bisexuality – and the experience of transgender people. The most important UK organisation for supporting transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse young people, for example, is called Mermaids.

It’s unsurprising that outsiders of all kinds connect with a story about a mermaid who cannot fit in the human world she desperately wishes to belong to. Whether that’s a beloved author in 19th-century Denmark, or an African American girl today.

Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Events & CFPs: Folktales, Gothic women, monsters, winter tales, Hardy

Various events and CFPs coming up soon. I’ve left this post quite late, sorry, so check dates as some are urgent!

1. English Folktales Lost & Found: Storytelling and Scholarship

5–6pm (BST), 11 October 2022, Sir Victor Blank Lecture Theatre, Weston Library, Oxford

Scholars have long lamented the scant records of oral storytelling in England, compared to the riches harvested from Scotland, Denmark or Japan. How do you retrieve a lost tradition? It turns out the English folktale tradition is full of weirdness and wonder—a mirror to ourselves.

Neil Philip and Elizabeth Garner share the development of their new collections of old stories: The Watkins Book of English Folktales and Lost & Found. Their talks will be followed by a discussion exploring the process of recording or rewriting tales, and the crossover between scholarship and creative interpretation.

2. CFP: Gothic Women Conference: The Year of Gothic Women

University of Dundee, 29-31 August 2023. Deadline: 31 January 2023

The year 2023 marks the bicentenary of both Ann Radcliffe’s death and two major publications for Mary Shelley: the first edition of Valperga and the second edition of Frankenstein,which now bore her name as author. The Gothic Women Project showcases exciting new strands of research on women’s writing in the Gothic mode, focusing on underappreciated texts by major authors as well as works by marginalised figures. Building on our successful online seminar series, this conference brings scholars into conversation with creative writers, artists, and heritage professionals. We aim to examine the different ways in which the Gothic raises questions of self-definition in a time of crisis, to explore the diversity of women’s Gothic writing in the Romantic period, and to celebrate the afterlives and legacies of this work through the centuries. 

3. CFP: Time of Monsters conference

16-17 November 2022, University of Bielsko-Biała, Poland. Deadline: 15 October 2022

Klaus Nürnberger, an expert in the evolution of ideas, sees the recurring manifestations of the monstrous in different cultures as units of meaning travelling forward in time, and in his seminal seven theses on monster culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen makes a complementary claim, succinctly reminding us that monsters are inevitably manifestations of the historical circumstances that spawn them: “The monstrous body is pure culture.”[2] After all, the very etymology of the word monster (“that which reveals”, “that which warns”) encourages treating the monstrous as a text of culture par excellence. This is why our conference invites scholars from various fields to explore the possibilities of reading the terror of our monstrous times as symptoms of what has been hiding beneath the shiny surfaces of our culture.

4. CFP: Fireside Tales of Terror: The Gothic and Winter

University of Warwick, 15-16th December 2022. Deadline: 17 October 2022

Julia Briggs writes that ‘The telling of tales around the fireside makes explicit a particular aspect of the ghost story which depends upon a tension between the cosy familiar world of life (associated with Heim and heimisch – home and the domestic) and the mysterious and unknowable world of death (unheimlich, or uncanny)’ (180-1), inviting us to think about the spaces and places of Winter Gothic; often juxtaposed against the chilling and deadly atmosphere and dark nights of the “outside” which the narrator of the “Fireside Horrors” piece insists make the conjunction of tale of terror and the winter period so ideal. In fact, many other Gothic works use that setting of snow, ice, and long shadowy nights outside of the Christmas period as they explore the horrors hidden in isolated arctic landscapes [. . .] Yet, what happens to, and what does Winter/Christmas Gothic mean, in a global context and in regions where that season is hot and dry? And so, we also invite pieces that challenge the traditional connections.

5. Hardy and Gothic Wessex: A Weekend Conference Featuring Dorset’s Darker Side!

28-30 October 2022, Dorchester Town Hall in the Corn Exchange Building.

The rural idyll of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex does not immediately conjure images commensurate with the stereotypical Gothic tropes of crumbling castles, life after death, the cessation of patrilineage, ghosts, premature burial and confinement. However, Hardy utilized Gothic tropes in many of his short stories and arguably some of his novels, particularly the sensation tale Desperate Remedies. In works such as ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe’, ‘The Doctor’s Legend’, ‘The Withered Arm’ and ‘Fiddler of the Reels’ we see Hardy making recourse to folk-horror legends and practices and psycho-sexual torture and confinement. Ghosts and their portents abound in his poetry and he was acutely aware of the presence of the Unheimliche – that which should be repressed but has reared its ugly head in order to frighten, to reaffirm the existence of the Uncanny.

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