Books

Below is a brief list – which I may add to from time to time – of books I have enjoyed about things magical and mysterious.


From the Beast to the Blonde – on Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner

In this wonderful, scholarly book, Marina Warner explores the social context, meaning and metamorphosis of fairy tales – from stories of the Queen of Sheba via Old Mother Goose to the Disney Corporation – and the preoccupations of the people (mainly women) who told them.

Rather than treating the stories as ‘archetypal’ tales, Marina Warner returns them firmly to their historical context – a context in which small children really were abandoned in the forest in times of famine, where daughter suffered incest in silence, and where the lives of penniless old women were precarious indeed. As she restores the social context that has been airbrushed away since these tales were written down, she reveals them as they were: coded stratagems for survival, triumph, subversion, rebellion. Fairy tales, as she says, have ‘a generic commitment to justice.’

This is an academic book and the prose is sometimes dense  – a small price to pay, in my view, for the breadth and depth of knowledge Marina Warner shares with her readers and for her acute insights and observations. There is barely a chapter in my copy which does not have paragraphs underlined or copious notes in the margins – not because I was using the book to study but because I found it so darned interesting. I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book which deals with the themes that run through the tales: absent mothers, wicked stepmothers, reluctant brides, runaway girls, the language of hair, etcetera. The original paperback edition (pictured above)  has got many fascinating – and sometimes startling – illustrations. The newer edition is much poorer quality and the illustrations suffer as a result. But if you are interested in fairy tales, or in cultural history, or in the wiles that women have used to galvanize, caution and advise, or in the role that story-telling plays to condition or subvert, buy it anyway: this book will bring you both wisdom and delight!


Way of the I Ching by Stephen Karcher

The I Ching, commonly translated as The Book of Changes, is a Classical Chinese text which draws upon an oral tradition and system of divination that may be as much as 3,500 years old. A philosophical treatise and compendium of universal principles, the I Ching is still widely used as an oracle in China today.

At its core is the observation that the only thing which is constant in life is change – but that there is a pattern and predictability to this change in the flux between yin and yang, the binary principle that underlies creation. Rather than the Western idea that fulfilment lies in forging our way to our personal goals at all costs, the I Ching teaches that a way exists along which our fulfilment can be found. To resist tao, or the way, is to be like a swimmer struggling against the current as opposed to a surfer riding the waves. The I Ching is a kind of handbook for keeping in touch with this ‘way’ at times when we feel confused, lost or stuck.

By way of an example, the 5th reading is called ‘attending’ and describes a situation in which someone is forced to wait by circumstances beyond their control. Rather than feeling frustrated, angry or trying to push forward, the I Ching reminds us that it is sometimes necessary to wait for the right moment to act and counsels us to prepare and ‘attend’ to what needs to be done with patience and focus.

My first encounter with ‘The Book of Changes’ was with an old translation by Richard Wilhelm which I personally found to be almost completely incomprehensible. Looking at Stephen Karcher’s translation was like discovering a different text. It is still cryptic in places, of course, for such is the nature of the beast, but in Karcher’s hands the prose is poetic, direct and compelling.

The book includes easy to follow instructions about how to use the I Ching for guidance – which it is fun to do. Even if you have no truck with such things, however, there is much to learn from these pages, for they shed light on a philosophical tradition very different (many would say wiser) than our own, and one which has had a profound influence on the culture and politics of Eastern Asia.


The Knot of Time, Astrology and Female Experience by Lindsay River and Sally Gillespie.

The absurdity of the ‘sun sign’ predictions that litter newspapers and internet sites has given poor old Astrology  a bad name. This book serves as a readable introduction to the basic component of a horoscope (planets, signs, houses and aspects) and goes beyond those banal, reductive stereotypes to look at the myths and archetypes that inform humankind’s oldest ‘science’.

I personally find the narrative in the brief prologue and epilogue less successful, but the meat of the book more than makes up for it. The restoration of a female perspective means that the authors have looked behind the clichés and restored the subtlety of this ancient wisdom about the human psyche. Behind the ‘Martial’ Roman archetype of the planet Mars, for example, they suggest there lies the earlier prototype of the spring ‘vegetation gods’ who were worshipped throughout the Near East and whose courage – and transcendence – lay in a symbolic sacrifice for the good of the land.

The book is full of historical and cultural tidbits which weave a rich web of connections and symbols back into a subject that has become a little threadbare from poor use.


Tree Wisdom, the definitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of trees, by Jacqueline Memory Paterson.

If you like trees and you like folklore this book contains plenty to entertain and charm you. There is a chapter on seventeen trees indigenous to the British
Isles, many of them common in the rest of Europe. Each chapter contains botanical information about the tree, sections on the legends they have inspired, the healing and magical properties traditionally associated with them, and the customary uses for their wood – from walking sticks to ships.

The book’s focus is on Anglo-Saxon and Celtic legends (although it does include references to Greek myth and others), and the minimal illustrations, although nice, are not sufficient to identify the trees if you don’t know them already –  so it’is not really a ‘definitive’ guidebook if, indeed, such a thing could exist for this subject matter.

It is full of beguiling stories and nuggets, however, for those who like the romance of the greenwood tree, and the whole charming effect is a bit like going for a stroll in the woods with a well-informed and chatty – some would say batty – friend.