A fairytale weekend

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” ― G.K. Chesterton

After being treated to these beautiful books by a good friend I spent an otherwise dismal weekend holed up in my new reading room indulging my inner child.

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Chris Riddel

23301545The Sleeper and the Spindle is a great example of a children’s book made for an adult audience. Think Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty, with some dark magic thrown in. I love modern twists on traditional fairy tales, almost as much as I love traditional fairy tales, so this book was always going to go down well.

High in a tower in a kingdom far, far away a beautiful princess lies enchanted in her bed. Lately, the spell which keeps her slumbering has begun to spread, and the people of neighbouring villages have fallen victim to the sickness. Many brave souls have tried to reach the tower in the hopes of breaking the enchantment only to lose their lives, impaled on an impenetrable fortress of rose thorns. On what is to be the eve of her wedding, a young queen decides to set aside her matrimonial plans to rescue the sleeping princess. Accompanied by a team of crass dwarves, the queen takes up her sword and chain mail and travels deep into the mountains to reach the sleeping kingdom.

The Sleeper and the Spindle combines the traditional themes we all know and love with an exciting modern twist, to create an enchanting, yet ominous tale – as delicately unsettling as it is deliciously captivating.

Oh and the illustrations are nothing short of spectacular.

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Russian Fairy Tales – Alexander Afanasyev, with illustrations by Ivan Bilibin

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If you saw my post about Children’s Stories from Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends you’ll no doubt be familiar with my fascination with foreign fairy tales. In fact, this interest does not apply just to fairy tales – myths, legends and ghost stories are also high up my list of interests. I find it really interesting to see how stories from different nations compare to those I grew up with and know so well.

This collection of tales was written, or rather, recorded by renowned Russian folklorist Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev in the mid-19th century. The book contains some of the best-known Russian folktales, including: Vasilisa the BeautifulThe Feather of Finist the Falcon; The Frog-Tsarevna; and Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.

Of all the characters I came across in this volume, and there are a few who feature in more than one tale, I was particularly taken by Baba Yaga.

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Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a small wooden hut at the edge of the forest. Now, this description may not seem so different from a lot of other witches in children’s stories, but Baba Yaga has so many fantastic quirks, the likes of which I would never have imagined.  Her hut stands on hen’s legs, and will only lower itself to permit entry when in receipt of a certain rhyme. It is also surrounded by a picket fence adorned with the skulls of Baba Yaga’s victims, the eye sockets of which glow in the night.  Instead of a broomstick, Baba Yaga travels through the forest in a giant mortar, driving herself forward with a pestle in her right hand, while sweeping the forest floor with a broom in her left hand. Oh and she is also often followed by spirits.

I love her.

Having no familiarity with Russian folklore prior to this, I feel the collection gave a good introduction to some of the most famous characters in Russian folk literature. It’s a beautiful volume, and some of the illustrations are so elaborate I feel I could have spent hours studying them.

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Tales of terror – Ghosts of Cambridge

Cambridge is renowned for its rich history, and as a historic seat of learning; it seems only natural then that the city would also be teeming with myths, legends and tales of ghostly sightings of long dead professors who still stalk the college halls.

Christ’s College

Christ’s college was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1505, and is renowned for educating some of Cambridge’s most famous figures, including Charles Darwin and John Milton. With such a rich history it is hardly surprising that the college has its fair share of ghosts. One such spectre haunts a mulberry tree which stands in the college gardens. Mr Round, as he is affectionately known, is said to visit the college on nights of the full moon. He appears as a tall, elderly gentleman wearing a beaver hat. It is rumoured that in life Mr Round murdered the only doctor with the skills to save his dying girlfriend. Now his ghost stalks the area around the mulberry tree in deep regret.

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Corpus Christi College

Historically Corpus Christi College is notable as the only college in Cambridge founded by Cambridge townspeople; nowadays it is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for the Corpus Clock. The clock is an odd device, which could be considered both hypnotic, and deeply disturbing – I am more inclined to lean towards the latter.

The college is also said to be the lurking place of the ghost of Dr Butts, who was found hanging by his garters in his room on Easter Sunday 1632. The image of Dr Butts is described as being dressed in white, and having a distinctive dark mark on his throat – evidence of his suicide.

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Peterhouse

Peterhouse is the oldest of the Cambridge Colleges, founded in 1284 by Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely. The college is said to be the stalking place of the ghost of Francis Dawes, a former bursar of the college who hanged himself in the 18th century after an election scandal. Dawes took his life near the Combination Room, and is now said to prowl the area. It is said that a series of knocks can be heard before his spirit appears.

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St John’s College

St John’s College was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. The college is said to be the home of one of the more unusual of the college ghosts. On several occasions in the 1990s the spectre of a large, black cat was spotted, lurking the in the college grounds. Sightings of the creature were reported by both a college caretaker and the groundsman.

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Gog Magog Downs

The Gog Magog Downs are a series of low chalky hills running along the south-eastern side of Cambridgeshire. The downs are now considered to be a place of great natural beauty, with many people coming from the surrounding areas to walk through the woods and meadows. It was rumoured in the distant past that these hills were home to a phantom monkey, which could be seen darting through the undergrowth. I myself am a great fan of the Gog Magog Downs; I love to go on afternoon walks there. But I find the idea of a ghost monkey to be somewhat terrifying, inadvertently shuddering with horror each time I read over the legend.Gog magog (2)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge, located on Trumpington Street in the heart of the city centre. It is an outstanding building to look at, made up of spectacular columns, mosaic floors and intricate decorated ceilings, and guarded by four majestic stone lions. It is said that should you be on Trumpington Street at the stroke of midnight you could bear witness to the great stone lions rising up from their guard posts at either side of the museums grand entrance, and making their way into the street, where they can be seen to briefly stop to drink from the guttering at the side of the road, before turning and proceeding back to their posts.

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Newmarket Road

Newmarket Road is an unremarkable part of Cambridge, which is none the less said to be haunted by one of the city’s most remarkable ghosts. The image of a furry, waddling penguin has often been spotted in this area. In recent years, a local paranormal group have suggested that the ghost may be that of a doctor in a cloak, wearing a beak-like plague mask – but that’s hardly very exciting is it?book_about_plague_doctor_by_mizusasori-d3exvda

Arbury road

Arbury road is located on the northern side of Cambridge city centre. Legend has it that this residential street is home to an unlucky shuck – a giant, spectral dog. It is said that any person unfortunate enough to gaze upon its prowling form will be cursed with a spell of bad luck.

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Special thanks for this post go to our resident office ghost Johannes.