In a new series of blogs, I will be exploring the great love stories of history, both real and imagined by poets, playwrights and authors.
I am starting today with one of my favourite stories, whose legend has endured for almost a millennia, that of Abelard and Héloïse. It is a true story dating back to the 12th century.
Héloïse was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Her wide knowledge and intelligence made her nominatissima, ‘most renowned’, in Western Europe. Young scholars require tutelage, and so it was that in 1115, as a young woman (some say as young as seventeen, others argue she was in her early twenties), Héloïse came to be a student of the well-respected Parisian teacher and philosopher Pierre Abelard.
It was a meeting of brilliant and bright minds, and the two quickly fell deeply in love. Abelard convinced Héloïse’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, to let him move into their home, where he would tutor Héloïse. A passionate, but illicit, affair began, the culmination of which was Héloïse falling pregnant. She was whisked away to Brittany to stay with her sister for her confinement, and once the baby – a son named Astrolabe – was born, she returned to Paris.
Fulbert, understandably, was enraged upon discovering the affair, and to appease him Abelard proposed marriage to Héloïse, but a secret marriage, for he worried the move would affect his prosperous career. Secrets have a way of getting out, however, and in this case Fulbert was the perpetrator: he began telling people of the ‘secret’ marriage.
Indiscretions were not tolerated in the 12th century, and the repercussions were grave: ultimately, a group of Fulbert’s friends attacked Abelard one night and castrated him. Full of shame, Abelard turned to the monkhood, donning his robes at the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. The heartbroken Héloïse, meanwhile, took the vows of sisterhood as a nun – reluctantly, it must be said, although she accepted her fate, becoming prioress, eventually, at the Oratory of the Paraclete in Champagne.
You may be wondering, what makes this love story endure? So far it has been no more than a thwarted illicit affair. It is what comes next that has made the story of Abelard and Héloïse go down in history: the two lovers began a correspondence by letter that has stood the test of time – passionate and intelligent debate captured forever in ink and paper.
These are not mere love letters, however, for the story of Abelard and Héloïse is, ultimately, a tragic one. Abelard repudiates their love, their relationship, recasting it as sinful lust and directing Héloïse to turn away from him, to God. Poor Héloïse! Modern-day academics have suggested that Abelard’s harsh, somewhat arrogant take on their relationship at this point may in fact be a deliberate attempt by Abelard to protect Héloïse. In his book Abelard & Heloise (Hacket, 2007) William Levitan writes: ‘Here the motive is part protective…for Abelard to take all the moral burden on himself and shield, to the extent he can, the now widely respected abbess of the Paraclete.’
Whatever the truth of their feelings in the end, the two lived out their lives apart – celebrated for their learning, yet alone. After their deaths, however, their bones were laid side by side. In 1817 their remains were moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery:
Ever since, people have paid homage to the lovers at their tomb. Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad:
[A]mong the thousands and thousands of tombs in Pere la Chaise, there is one that no man, no woman, no youth of either sex, ever passes by without stopping to examine… This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise — a grave which has been more revered, more widely known, more written and sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in Christendom save only that of the Saviour. All visitors linger pensively about it; all young people capture and carry away keepsakes and mementoes of it; all Parisian youths and maidens who are disappointed in love come there to bail out when they are full of tears; yea, many stricken lovers make pilgrimages to this shrine from distant provinces to weep and wail and “grit” their teeth over their heavy sorrows, and to purchase the sympathies of the chastened spirits of that tomb with offerings of immortelles and budding flowers.
Mark Twain went on to tell the story of Abelard and Héloïse in his own imitable way, culminating in a scathing judgement passed on the ‘dastardly seducer’ Pierre Abelard (you can read it for yourself at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/innocents/chapter15.html). Unromantic, certainly, but with the ring of truth to it: Abelard hardly comes across as a kind and loving man. But in legends, the details are often not important; what matters is sentiment. Tragedy, in fact, as with Romeo and Juliet. Had Abelard and Héloïse eloped together and lived a long and happy life, no doubt nobody would visit their graves.
Over the centuries, the story of Abelard and Héloïse has inspired many creatives, from artists (the painting above is by English artist Edmund Leighton) to poets, notably Alexander Pope in the 18th century and Christina Rossetti in the 19th. I love the Rossetti poem, ‘The Convent Threshold’, for its ending, full of hope for reunion – for a happy ever after which perhaps, if you so believe, Abelard and Héloïse found in the next life:
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in Paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.
‘The moon lives in the lining of your skin.’
So wrote the poet Pablo Neruda in his ‘Ode to a Beautiful Nude’. This line resonated with me as I wrote my latest novel, Legacy. The heroine, born under a full moon, is Luna, which is Spanish for moon. Ruy, the man who falls in love with her, believes she is aptly named. When she attends a costume ball that his family is hosting, wearing a Moon Queen costume, he calls her, ‘An enchanting beauty, so ethereal that you actually appear to be made of moonlight.’
There is something of the moon within Luna. Her character was inspired, in some ways, by my long-held fascination with legends and myths, especially those of the classical civilisations. In Roman mythology, Luna was the lunar goddess, the divine embodiment of the moon; in Greek mythology she was named Selene. Both goddesses were strong and beautiful, very feminine, and related to various romantic legends – for what man could resist the beauty of moonlight incarnate?
Luna’s predecessor in the Andalucían Nights trilogy is Luz (Ruy’s mother), heroine of Masquerade. In Spanish, luz means light, and that is how I see Luz: she is vibrant and dazzling; she is happiest out in the bright sunshine of the hottest part of the day.
Luna, conversely, is more reserved; she has reason to hold back part of herself. She is also cooler in demeanour, and I think that she is more deeply romantic, which is why the idea of moonlight living in the lining of her skin so appealed to me.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote:
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
I don’t see the moon as inconstant, though; it is solid, unchanging – as Henry David Thoreau put it in his poem ‘The Moon’, ‘she does not wane’… ‘alway in her proper sphere/She’s mistress of the night’. What we can see of the moon, however, does differ from day to day. So it is with Luna: my reader knows her innermost thoughts and feelings, but Ruy cannot always see all of her and understand her motives and desires.
In persuading Luna to trust him and explore her feelings for him, then, Ruy must push aside the shadows and clouds behind which she may hide. If Luna is the moon, then, Ruy is the wind; if she is the goddess Selene, he is the god Aeolus.
I will leave you with a poem by one of my favourite Spanish writers, Federico Garcia Lorca. In ‘Romance de la Luna, Luna, Luna’ the moon is personified as a woman, watched over by the air:
The moon came to the forge
with her skirt of white, fragrant flowers.
The young boy watches her, watches.
The boy is watching her.
In the electrified air
the moon moves her arms
and points out, lecherous and pure,
her breasts of hard tin.
Flee, moon, moon, moon.
If the gypsies were to come,
they would make with your heart
white necklaces and rings.
Young boy, leave me to dance.
When they come, the gypsies
will find you upon the anvil
with closed eyes.
Flee, moon, moon, moon.
Already I sit astride horses.
Young boy, leave me, don’t step on
my starched whiteness.
The horse rider approaches
beating the drum of the plain.
Within the forge the young man
has closed eyes.
Through the olive grove they come,
the gypsies – bronze and dreaming,
and eyes half closed.
Hark, hear the night bird –
how it sings in the tree.
Across the sky moves the moon,
holding the young boy by the hand.
Within the forge the gypsies cry,
are crying out.
The air watches over her, watches.
The air is watching over her.
Translator: Helen Gunn
Of all the mythical creatures – and there are many – the nymph has always been one of my favourites. What image does the word nymph conjure up for you? Perhaps something like this vision, painted by John William Waterhouse:
A nymph is a female deity, but a minor one. She dwells in nature, is invariably beautiful and lives to sing and dance. No wonder, then, that she provided inspiration for the great and vivid carnival that is held annually in Cadiz, setting for my latest novel Legacy.
The nymph has particular significance for the city of Cadiz, because of its ancient connection to the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology). In an article I wrote last spring entitled ‘Hercules: An Andalusian hero’ I explain his connection to the city: he founded the city of Gadeira (Cadiz) en route to carrying out his tenth labour, to journey to the end of the world and take the cattle of the monster Geryon. The city had been named Gades, but by some it was called Erytheia, for one of the Hesperides – nymphs. The Hesperides were daughters of the night (from hesperos, meaning evening) who tended a garden near the mountain of Atlas where there grew an apple tree. This was no ordinary tree: it bore golden apples that bestowed immortality on any who took a bite. Stealing the apples was Hercules’ eleventh labour, which he completed successfully.
Nymphs, then, are beautiful, musical and interwoven with the legend of Cadiz’s foundation, and so they have naturally been part of the famous fiesta in the city that begins each year in February and runs for a fortnight. Until this year, that is, when nymphs are banned…
The drive for change began in earnest last year, when a core element of the carnival was altered. Traditionally, women of the city compete to become nymphs. Nine are chosen, based on their dedication to and knowledge of the carnvial, and their ability to dance the tanguillo:
Of these nine, one is crowned diosa, goddess, and she and her nymphs preside over the parade and the final of the singing competition at the Teatro Falla (for more information on the theatre, see my article ‘An inspirational composer: Manuel de Falla’).
Last year, however, Spanish News Today reported that having a female deity only had been deemed sexually discriminative, and that a male god would be chosen as well. This year, The Irish Times explains that concerns about discrimination have driven a more radical change to the programme: no nymphs at all.
According to the Times, ‘Cadiz’s leftist administration has outlawed the participation of the nymphs on the grounds that they are a chauvinistic anachronism that promotes gender inequality… The campaign’s manifesto said the parading of the nymphs and the goddess during the carnival risked generating “stereotypes, inferiority complexes and frustrations among our girls and younger women”.’
The nymphs were too passive, said those calling for change: ‘mute, quiet, a spectator, merely a beautiful figure on a float, a hostess handing out prizes, playing very much a secondary role’. They argued that the tradition, which dates back to the days of Franco’s right-wing regime, was part of the suppression of women.
Many citizens of Cadiz signed the petition to remove nymphs from the carnival, but not everyone was happy to see the end of this tradition, and a counter petition was launched.
While I can see the argument put forward by those working to ensure gender equality, it seems a shame to break with tradition so abruptly. I wonder whether instead there may be a way to empower these nymphs; to create new characters for them that are simultaneously grounded in mythology and yet also relevant for current times.
What do you think? I would love to hear your ideas and know whether, were you to visit the carnival this month, you would miss the mythological aspect.
I do not know that I would be a writer today were it not for fairy tales. I was fortunate to have parents who had a well-stocked library and who believed in reading to their daughters; it was on their knees, as a very young child, that I discovered the Arabian Nights and the folk tales put into print by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – and into my head burst genies and dragons and princesses and knights and castles and cottages… and loss and darkness and love and light.
It was not only books, however, that awakened in me a fascination with fairy tales. My governess, Zula, harnessed the age-old tradition of oral storytelling (which of course predated the formalisation of fairy tales in print). She could weave a tale from her own imagination that rendered me completely spellbound; her words painted the most captivating scenes in my mind. Over the many years that Zula told me stories, she taught me how to be inspired by an age-old tale and turn it into something new and exciting; in essence, she taught me how to be a writer.
In 2004, writer Christopher Booker published a book on storytelling entitled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. In this seminal work, he introduces seven core stories that are at the foundation of all stories, from ‘ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today’. Fairy tales feature prominently: Cinderella, for example, is the core rags to riches story; Beauty and the Beast is a rebirth story; Goldilocks is a tale of voyage and return.
A fairy tale, then, is not a literary form to dismiss as childish or fantastical. It is the foundation for any modern fictional writing. Certainly, readers of my own romance fiction will feel the resonance of the stories of my childhood, and that is where they will find their security, their comfort with the story. They can hold fast to what they know as I take diversions from the old and familiar, to I tell my own story.
I was inspired to think about the appeal of fairy tales this week by a recent news item on the subject. Have you heard that a new Mark Twain fairy tale is to be published in September, on the 150th anniversary of his first book’s publication? The story, entitled ‘The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine’, is described thus in the publisher’s synopsis:
In a hotel in Paris one evening in 1879, Mark Twain sat with his young daughters, who begged their father for a story. After the girls chose a picture from a magazine to get started, Twain began telling them the tale of Johnny, a poor boy in possession of some magical seeds. Later, Twain would jot down some rough notes about the story, but the tale was left unfinished . . . until now.
Plucked from the Mark Twain archive at the University of California at Berkeley, Twain’s notes now form the foundation of a fairy tale picked up over a century later. With only Twain’s fragmentary script and a story that stops partway as his guide, author Philip Stead has written a tale that imagines what might have been if Twain had fully realized this work:
Johnny, forlorn and alone except for his pet chicken, meets a kind woman who gives him seeds that change his fortune, allowing him to speak with animals and sending him on a quest to rescue a stolen prince. In the face of a bullying tyrant king, Johnny and his animal friends come to understand that generosity, empathy, and quiet courage are gifts more precious in this world than power and gold.
Illuminated by Erin Stead’s graceful, humorous, and achingly poignant artwork, this is a story that reaches through time and brings us a new book from America’s most legendary writer, envisioned by two of today’s most important names in children’s literature.
This publication of a newly discovered manuscript by a respected writer of old is following a trend in publishing (I wrote about this last year). It’s fascinating that there is such excitement over a new fairy tale – and not only because it was written by the author of ‘The Great American Novel’.
I think the interest in this new story comes down to a recognition that fairy tales are not ‘just for children’; they are for life. They are the foundations of stories, because the archetypes within them are timeless. More than that, though, they are a source of comfort, solace and strength. A fairy tale transports you back to childhood, when dragons were real and, most importantly, could be defeated.
As Albert Einstein said: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
The news has been abuzz in recent weeks about the movie Beauty and the Beast, which will release next spring.
Why all the interest? Well, the lead actress is Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, and supporting actors include Luke Evans, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen. Also, there has been much discussion of how Emma has ‘feministed up’ (as coined by Zoe Williams in The Guardian) the role of Belle. But beyond that, what’s really interesting people is that this fairy tale movie by Disney is live action, not animated.
Why the shift from the animation that has made Disney so successful to live action? Because, initially, it made good business sense to take a movie that has already proved popular and re-release it in a new form; the formula is proven. As the New Statesman put it, ‘Disney is undertaking a deliberate and extensive strategy of live-action remakes of nostalgic animated successes.’
But when Disney began this venture, with the live-action remakes for The Jungle Book, Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, they could not have known just how well received the new style of movie would be; The Jungle Book, released in 2016, made over a million dollars in the US on the opening weekend alone. Now, with the trend proving so popular, more movies are in the pipeline, from Mulan and Aladdin to The Lion King, Dumbo and Snow White.
So what is it about live action that’s ‘clicking’ with movie-goers? Why are we keen to see real people enacting age-old fairy tales?
I think it comes down to a desire to shrink the gap between fantasy and reality – to really be able to believe in the fairy tale. Watching a cartoon Belle fall in love with a cartoon Beast is lovely, but somewhat surreal; watching a real Belle fell in love with a Beast who’s breathtakingly realistic creates a much stronger emotional connection.
In these Disney live-action fairy tales, fantasy is made vivid and tangible. The actors are immersed in startlingly realistic fantasy worlds created through CGI; it takes some effort on the part of the audience to disbelieve what the eyes see as real.
And why would we want to believe the story is not real? To believe, even if only for a little while, to be thoroughly immersed in the story, is the great pleasure and comfort of engaging with fantasy. No wonder so many fans visit the Harry Potter Studios to explore Diagon Alley; no wonder there was such interest in a new production of The Nutcracker ballet in London, in which the audience would be guests at the Act 1 Christmas party and wander through the Kingdom of the Sweets in Act 2. We don’t just want to witness a fairy tale world – we want to escape into it. It is so much easier to imagine oneself in a world inhabited by real people than one inhabited by cartoons.
Have you seen any of the live-action Disney films? If so, how would you compare them to the animated originals? Are you keen to see the upcoming Beauty and the Beast film? Are there any other fairy tales you’d love to see on film? I would love to hear your thoughts.
I will leave you with the Disney trailers for both Beauty and the Beast movies, and a question: which most appeals to you?