I do feel rather guilty that, being a writer, I spend so little time posting here. My only excuse is that I've been busy working on a new novel whilst posting historical links to that on my Virtual Victorian blog. But some thoughts are more suitable for this site - and of late I've been considering the concept of stories within stories, and how authors can use such a device for enriching and deepening the world in which their characters are set.
In my own fictional worlds I liked to use a myths or fairy tales is to add another dimension - something spiritual or magical - sometimes even the supernatural. I love to read books that develop this theme - almost like a literary Russian doll, with more and more dolls contained inside, each with her own face and character.
One of the novels that comes to mind when I think about this sort of device is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, where different narrators offer the reader alternative views of the tale they're told. It is almost a puzzle that must unfold.
A S Byatt's The Children's Book tells the story of a woman who writes Edwardian fairy tales, and those tales are then woven into the plot - a means by which to tell the 'truth' of a world which is on the verge of destruction, personally, morally and politically. Very far from being a fairy tale! There are also vivid references to actual historical characters who have some great significance in the era's art and literature. And here we see them warts and all.
The House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski is a sprawling and unconventional novel that employs different stories and points of view. It uses 'found texts' and footnotes to draw the reader into worlds, seemingly disconnected. It is a horror story. It is a testament of love. It is the darkness consuming a mind when everything concrete and beloved begins to fall apart around. To read such a work is to find oneself immersed in something quite 'other'. Not an easy read, but ultimately one of the most rewarding I've known.
In my own novel, The Goddess and the Thief, I have drawn on stories of Indian gods and then woven their own tales and fates into the lives of my characters. I have also, here and there, had my fictional characters relate ancient myths or actual historical events that might, in some way, reflect their fates - such as the story of Anarkali, a tragic Indian romance described by my main narrator, a young woman who is called Alice, who is here recalling a childhood scene -
A still from the film Anarkali, 1953
"I did my best to try and forget, burying my head in the pages of books which my aunt brought from Tilsbury’s shelves below. If she read, it was her Bible, to memorise those verses from which to weave more séance spells – those quotes which pledged of lives to come. But I had no wish to think about what life might lie ahead for me. I lost myself in poetry, in fantasy worlds of adventure and myth. And how affected I became when I chanced to come across a tale once heard from the lips of my father – on that day when we went to the party held on the lawns of the Residency, the day when the boy maharajah had arrived on the back of an elephant.
Mini had not been there. Servants were not invited. That had caused me some distress, so much so that, when we first arrived, Papa took me to the rooms in which he had his offices. There, he dabbed at my tears with a handkerchief, then collected some seed kept in a drawer, after which he took my hand and we walked to the Residency church – to the gardens where Papa often went, to feed the birds, to sit alone.
It made me smile to see them, the parrots and the budgerigars, to hear the flutter of their wings, the whirling colours, blues and greens. Some of those birds, they were so tame they flew right down from the palm trees and ate the seed from Papa’s hand. And one of the parrots, it perched on his arm. It squawked, ‘Hello, dear Willoughby! And how are we today?’ That made me laugh, and Papa smiled. He said that he would teach that bird to say hello to me as well. I don’t know if he ever did. For then, he squawked the words himself, ‘Hello, Miss Alice! How are you?’ And when the birdseed had all gone, when the parrot had flown from my father’s arm, my fingers settled there instead and we went to look inside the church.
It was not very English, much more like a miniature Indian temple, being rectangular in shape, with columns holding up a dome. Papa said that was because it had once been a Mughal tomb which marked the final resting place of a girl called Anarkali.
I hung upon his every word when he told me that Anarkali’s name meant Pomegranate flower, to hear that Anarkali had been a favourite in the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. But when his son, the Prince Saleem, declared how much he loved the girl, Akbar said his son must die. How such news distressed Anarkali - so much so that she offered her life instead, and all she asked for in return was to spend one night in Saleem’s arms.
It was during that night she drugged his wine with seed of the pomegranate bloom, so that Saleem failed to wake in the morning and therefore prevent her sacrifice – when Akbar buried her alive – on the very spot where I then stood!
When Papa reached that part of the story I remember clapping a hand to my mouth and gasping with the shock of it. But nevertheless, I wanted more, still gazing up through wide-stretched eyes when Papa told me Prince Saleem had never recovered from his loss. And later, when his father died, when Saleem became the emperor, he constructed a tomb on the very site of the ditch where Anarkali lay. And on that tomb had been inscribed: Ah! Could I behold the face of my beloved once more, I would thank God until the day of resurrection.
I almost cried to hear those words – to hear the yearning they contained. They made me think of Shiva, and how he felt when Sati died. But when I went back home again, Mini consoled me with other tales in which Anarkali had been saved, then taken to a secret place where she and Saleem often met, to join in bliss, as man and wife.
I’m not sure I believed her, even at that tender age, when ‘happy ever after’ seemed the surest end for everything, when every story Mini told would have some scene of married bliss. But, if Anarkali had lived on then why would Saleem build that shrine? Why would he have inscribed those words – the words I’d seen with my own eyes?"