Monday, 25 August 2014

Mothers Grimm: Danielle Wood and Cassandra Golds talk with Jo Case about the enduring influence of fairy tales.

By Magdalena McGuire

My favourite book, when I was a child, was a hardcover edition of Fairy Tales by Brothers Grimm. It was the thickest book we had in the house, and in between its pages were hibiscus and frangipani flowers that had been pressed flat by stories of love and violence, betrayal and redemption.

The stories compelled me, not just because they showcased the extremities of human behaviour, but because of the exotic environments in which they took place: lands of snow and forests and silver lakes. Even the crows were exotic to a girl from Darwin.

Over time, the pages of the book disintegrated in the Darwin heat. And somehow or other, I forgot about the power of fairy tales: I stopped seeking them out, until now.

The session, ‘Mothers Grimm’ was a tribute to the enduring influence of fairy tales. In it, Cassandra Golds and Danielle Wood spoke to Jo Case about how they have used fairy tales as springboards to explore their own particular literary concerns, whether these be ‘capital L Love’ (Cassandra Golds’ Pureheart) or the complexity of motherhood (Danielle Wood’s, Mothers Grimm, from which this session took its title). 

Golds and Wood agreed that fairy tales have a unique power to talk about life – particularly the darker sides of life that we do not want to discuss, such as hate and jealousy and abject poverty. It is the darkness of fairy tales that makes them anathema to the safety of children’s literature today and to the banal tropes of popular culture such as “strong women” and “good mothers”. As Danielle Wood put it, “fairy tales are more alive” than many contemporary stories, and “they have sharper edges”.

The complexity of fairy tales was a theme that arose repeatedly in the session. Despite what Disney would have us believe, fairy tales – like the best of stories – do not offer themselves up to a single, ‘marketable’ message. Rather, fairy tales are, according to Wood, “a trick mirror”. That is, “they distort and give us different versions of ourselves all the time”. For this reason, fairy tales will offer us different readings at different stages of our lives.

It is also the reason why different fairy tales will gain cultural currency at different points in history. (For example, after the First World War, the tale of Bluebeard became popular, when the men came home with the horrors of war hidden in their own ‘secret chambers’.)

From Left to Right: Cassandra Golds, Danielle Wood and Jo Case
Pic: Magdalena McGuire
The atmosphere of the session was convivial and intimate, as though the audience were privy to a discussion that was taking place in one of the authors' homes (a sensation that was heightened by the fact that, during the talk, Wood was knitting what appeared to be a green scarf).

The highlight of the session, for me, was when Golds and Wood read from their books. Golds’ reading of Pureheart was nothing short of spellbinding. It was enough to convince me that I should discard my (no doubt snobbish) aversion to young adult literature and read her book immediately. Wood’s reading of Mothers Grimm offered a change of pace with her darkly sardonic dig at the stereotype of the “Good Mother”, the “Vicks Mum” who, with a “two-toothed cherub on her hip”, will “de-holster a spray pack and vanquish the invisible nasties on the bright white porcelain of her toilets and sinks” – all without cracking a chip in her “Frenchly polished nails”.

This session reminded me, not only why I love fairy tales, but also why I love writers festivals. I left having discovered two wonderful Australian women writers whose works I am looking forward to delving into – sharp edges and all.


  1. I thought this was a great session too. I found Cassandra's comments about strong female protagonists - (that she didn't see the point if they were essentially just decorative females who happened to know karate) provocative and interesting. Likewise her observation that a strong fairy tale theme for our time is what happens when innocence meets evil. Hope your enjoy the books!

  2. Yes, so much to think about after this session! I've got hold of Cassandra's new book - it's gorgeous. Looking forward to reading Danielle's next.


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