Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fairy post #13 - fairy researcher Robyn Floyd

News / Dates:

Hogwarts Fete, by Sand Box Land / Glasswings
When: 24th October 7pm - 8:30pm
Where: Club Voltaire, Level 203, 14 Raglan St, North Melbourne
More info

Since my previous post (Wonderwings Fairy Shop Part One, fairy blog #12) Wonderwings fairy queen Anne Atkins has invited all ye fey folk to an Open Garden.
When: Saturday 21st & Sunday 22nd November
Where: In respect for Anne's privacy, please access location via official site: 

Ethereal garden of Fairy Queen Anne Atkins, Melbourne, Australia, Spring 2015

Part Two of Wonderwings history & related tales is unfolding.

For now, here's another treat from our fairy ring:

Interview with Dr Robyn Floyd

Fairy Researcher, educator & member of the Australian Fairy Tale Society


Robyn E. Floyd recently submitted her PhD “Imagining Australia in fairy tales, philosophical essays and children’s songs: Olga Ernst’s construction of Australian bush fantasy in Australian children’s literature from a German-Australian perspective” at the University of Melbourne. I discovered Robyn’s research in 2013 during An Afternoon in Fairy Land by The Monash Fairy Tale Salon at the Rare Books Collection, Sir Louis Matheson Library, Clayton campus, at which Robyn presented a paper “Imported Fairies in the Australian Bush: Olga Ernst’s Fairy Tales”.

Pycnantha wattle - courtesy of Robyn Floyd's blog

L: You suggest, in your blog, that early Australian fairy tales had a distinctly green and gold hue, not in spinning straw into gold, but in wattle and other foliage of the bush. Did this inspire the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s 2015 conference theme, “Transformations: spinning straw into green and gold”? 

R: When the conference theme was announced I was exploring motifs in early Australian fairy tales. My focus was on the manner in which the early authors of Australian fairy tales placed traditional fairy folk firmly in our unique landscape. When the theme 'Transformations: spinning straw into green and gold' was released it immediately conjured a strong visual image of 'the bush'. I reflected on the way the bush was the transformational force turning European fairy tales into 'Australian' fairy tales in specific group of literary fairy tales I was studying (1870-1910).

L: How did you first hear about the society and why did you join?

R: I was excited to hear about the formation of a national not-for-profit society focused on collecting, preserving, discussing, sharing, and creating Australian fairy tales. Australian fairy tales reflect our unique environment - don't expect handsome princes on white stallions to rescue fair maidens. You may find more frequently the shy, stalwart bushman who is more at ease in the bush. Our ‘princesses’ aspired to mansions in the wealthier suburbs of 'Marvellous Melbourne' rather than draughty castles.

Graham Seal's suggestion that Australian fairies are 'fairies in the paddock' (Larrikins, bush tales and other great Australian stories) had a strong resonance for me. In the stories I researched our fairy folk seemed to live on the fringes of the towns, in the paddocks and the surrounding bush not far from human habitation. A discussion that we might like to begin is whether the fairies written into our Australian fairy tales are more practical in their application of magic than their European cousins. 

One of my favourite examples is from 'Tim' by Atha Westbury. When Tim rescues ‘Cocky’  (a Lake George fairy under a spell) he is given something useful to an Australian farmer in return, not gold or the hand of a princess in marriage, but magic words to make a bad tempered cow into an excellent milker.

L: Why did you choose Olga Ernst for your research? 

R: It felt as if Olga Ernst chose me. I was completing an Australian children's literature subject and needed to complete an assignment on an early Australian children's author. Olga's daughter Helen taught Christian Religious Instruction at the school where I was teaching and joined in a staffroom conversation on early Australian writers. Imagine my delight when she told me that her mother was one of the authors on my list and in the following weeks discussed Olga's work with me. I was captivated with the 'Olga story' and completed my assignment. However the feeling that Olga had been forgotten and overlooked, as many of our early women writers have been, lingered and while doing some casual lecturing at The University of Melbourne I mentioned this to a colleague. Suddenly I found myself beginning a PhD!

Robyn Floyd
L: Which is your favourite of her books?

Ernst wrote three books and numerous articles. My favourite book is 'Fairy tales from the land of the wattle'. Fairy folk such as mermaids swimming in the Yarra River and giants using fern trees as stepping stones in the Black Spur Ranges intrigued me. I was drawn to the way Olga created a sense of Australia, for me, by using accurate botanical, geographical and geological descriptions.

L: At the age of sixteen, Olga wrote “Fairytales from the Land of the Wattle”, published 1904. According to one of your papers, this was “part of a new development in children’s literature leaning towards the creation of an Australian Bush fantasy genre.” It seems that some readers today have mixed feelings about native animals mingling with imported folklore. How do you feel about the integration of indigenous flora, such as wattle or gumnuts, with fairies?

R: Maria Tatar (1992) suggests that 'All printed fairytales are coloured by the facts of the time and place in which they were recorded’. It seems natural to me that the flora and fauna around them influenced those who wanted to write fairy tales for Australian children. Reviews of the early fairy tales show that the contemporary audience was appreciative. A review of J. M. Whitfeld's fairy tales is one example of this.

She (Whitfeld) introduced the local fairy tale and she found in the Australian environment an atmosphere where elves, hobgoblins, and animals endowed with speech could feel as acceptable to Australian children as did their prototypes in the pages of Grimm and Hans Andersen. There is no being in the whole world so conservative as the average urchin, and that he was willing to divide his allegiance between his former idols and Miss Whitfeld's stories is a striking testimony to the appeal of the latter. (Lee, 1916)

'Spirit of the Bush Fire' by J.M. Whitfeld
As raised in AFTS discussions many Australian children's literature authorities have questioned the authenticity of adding imported folklore into our children's fairy tales. Maurice Saxby (1998), author and children's literature reviewer, felt that fairies and elves were uneasy in the bush while Brenda Niall suggested that early Australian fantasies were clumsy and coined an evocative phrase 'imported literary machinery with local labels' (1987).

As a child I adored Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and later Bottersnikes and Gumbles. I was terrified of the Big Bad Banksia Men and looked differently at tin cans after reading about mean-spirited bottersnikes! These fantasy creatures were imagined into being after 'imported' fairies had adventured in the bush. 

Looking through fairy tale books in the school library, I was also drawn to the comparison between Fairy Tales for Young Australians (Wade, 1995) and those early Australian fairy tales that attempted to promote an Australian identity in the traditional fairy tale through the placement of fairies in Australian geographical and botanical settings. In Wade’s book the traditional fairy tale is given Australian characters (e.g. Poss in Boots instead of Puss in Boots). Rather like swapping the fairy tale shoes of Cinderella for Ugg boots. 

L: You have raised an interesting question about transference of fairy folk into new environments or forms. 

R: I don't believe that literary fairy tales should be confined by rules or structures and am happy to let them continue to evolve in the imaginations of authors. The imagining of new fantasy beings such as the gum nut babies or transference of the 'old' into new forms is, I think, exciting and I applaud the touch of irreverent humour. Why shouldn’t we challenge the 'traditional' and see what happens to the essence of the tale when Puss–in-Boots becomes a possum? 

L: So can we introduce flora and fauna into Australian fairy tales in such a way that both indigenous and imported life forms cohabit with verisimilitude? Has this co-existence shifted over time, or is it something we will be negotiating for a while longer yet?

R: I think there are powerful arguments on both sides and as one of the founding principles of the Australian Fairy Tale Society is to allow and actively encourage diverse and opposing viewpoints I am confident that there will continue to be a respectful literary negotiation on this issue on which, I suggest, we may never find a common ground. 

L: Over time, what has been the reception to Olga’s tales compared with that of her Australian peers?

'The Society of Gumnut Artists' by May Gibbs

'The Waterfall Fairy' by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite

R: Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (Elves and Fairies, Little Fairy Sister), May Gibbs (Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) and Pixie O'Harris (The Pixie O'Harris Fairy Book) are examples of some of better-known fairy tale authors. Less is known of those early fairy talers of whom Olga was one. Approximately twelve books appeared sporadically over thirty years between the appearance of the first fairy tale in book form in 1870 and Olga's. It should be mentioned that there were also numerous short fairy tales in the children's section of newspapers and children's annuals. These can be sourced through TROVE.

'Fairy Tales From The Land Of The Wattle' by Olga Ernst

While Ernst's book Fairy Tales from the Land of the Wattle was distributed and sold in five states and her fairy tales well received at the time according to numerous reviews and critiques, the main challenge for her was the lack of control over her book. McCarron, Bird & Co. paid Ernst for her manuscript and sent her a copy. They did not reprint it. However it has been digitised by the NLA so perhaps we might see more interest as interested scholars and storytellers can download it.

It is worth noting that some publishing companies have continued to republish some of the early fairy stories to the delight of audiences. 'Dot and the Kangaroo' (Pedley, 1899) an early Australian fantasy, published five years before Ernst’s 'Fairy tales from the land of the wattle', has been re-printed and translated into many languages, produced in book and digitised form, animated and filmed and a spin-off series created. The fairy tale stories of Tarella Quin have been reprinted numerous times. Quin published her first fairy tale, 'Gum tree brownie' in 1907 and enlargements and variations have appeared with regularity (1918, 1925, 1934 and 1983). 

L: Do you think fairy tales are only for children? Did Ernst?

R: Ernst loved Grimms' fairy tales and wrote her tales specifically for children. According to her daughter and granddaughter Ernst read her tales, and others, to her children and grandchildren.
Robyn Floyd being wispy & fey

Despite the reality that when you find Prince Charming in the grown-up world he may have flaws and come without untold riches, sometimes the comfort and familiarity of the fairy tale structure beckons. The popularity of books such as Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth that are fabulous retellings of traditional tales or those that twist endings or amalgamate multiple versions of tales like The Snow Child by Eovyn Ivey and The Sleeper And The Spindle by Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell attest to the continuing resonance of fairy tale motifs in our own modern day lives.

L: You’ve forged storytelling in primary school education, finding ways to cultivate curiosity and hold attention. It’s surely quite a challenge to impart knowledge and foster listening skills, while nurturing imaginations.

R: Some years ago I investigated the use of Pie Corbett's story mapping/telling method to develop children's language skills. I became interested in the positive benefits of 'telling' stories beyond this language-based approach. Although my current role has taken me out of the classroom whenever I am able I like to 'tell' stories. I find the direct face to face connect between listener and teller never fails to engage students. I enjoy telling traditional fairy tales adding a local twist to small groups or whole classes. Perhaps the action may be centred in a place the students know; a playground tunnel, an old tree at the front of the school or perhaps in the Assistant Principal's Office! In doing this I am doing what oral storytellers have been doing for eons, localising tales for an audience.

Robyn Floyd - thesis, bravo!
L: During your studies, did anyone ask why a busy teacher - an assistant principal, no less - would return to tertiary study? Did you ever doubt yourself? What advice would you give to a student setting out on a PhD candidature?

R: Some people did question my sanity! My approach was not particularly innovative but it worked for me. Small chunks. Bit by bit. Nibbling away. Applying concentrated effort at times of low work pressure; working for a large portion of holidays and doing whatever-whenever for the rest. At least five hours on the weekend. Attempting bite size bits included research via TROVE, reading a section or article, writing a paragraph and interviewing by phone using a chunking method. An hour here. An hour there. Chunk by chunk it came together. Sometimes it took three hours to formulate a single useful sentence.

A PhD might start with a passion but like any long-term relationship make sure there's enough substance/interest to sustain you because you'll be together for quite awhile! Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen, a Danish academic summed up the process perfectly for me. He likened research to getting on a bus. I boarded the bus expecting to take a direct route to my destination but traffic (research) jams, items of interest by the roadside or unexpected events have meant there have been more than a few detours on my journey. I have at times been gripped by the feeling 'I may be on wrong bus' or worse, 'I shouldn't have got on!' As Olden-Jørgensen suggests sometimes you just have to sit back and enjoy the journey. I have loved the journey.

L: What are you doing now?

Now my thesis is completed I am writing Olga's biography. I have 'borrowed' a friend's cottage in the Tasmanian wilderness to write and I am sure amongst the ferns and button grass are fairy friends willing me to finish the onerous task of editing.

Robyn Floyd 
Friday, 2nd October 2015, Victoria
Fairytale researcher Dr Robyn Floyd, Australia 2015

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