Professor Gray was featured in the Evening Argus newspaper on Saturday as part of a series called “Celebrating Sussex”. A clipping is reproduced below.
When Professor Bill Gray launched the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, it was the realisation of a long-held ambition.
Brought up on fairy tales read by his father, he studied the Brothers Grimm and other German storytellers while reading modern languages at Oxford and went on to publish a well-received book on the work of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Philip Pullman, among others.
But Gray, who is professor of literary history and hermeneutics at the University of Chichester, wanted to explore these ideas more widely. “It’s always been important to me that what I worked on as an academic was relevant to ‘ordinary people’ – perhaps a legacy of growing up in Glasgow and trying to explain to punters in a bar what the heck I was doing at university!”
Students had been eager to sign up for a course he ran on fantasy literature at the university and he guessed (correctly) that if they were interested, people outside higher education would be too. The Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy opened at the University of Chichester in 2010; “I felt I’d been waiting all my life to do something like this,” says Gray.
Sussex was the perfect location. “It’s a county rich in folklore, fairy tales and fantasy. There are major works of fantasy and myth by Sussex residents such as Mervyn Peake [the writer of Gormenghast lived and worked for a time in Warningcamp, near Arundel] and Neil Gaiman [who lived for many years in East Grinstead] and there are fantasy and fairy tale elements not only in prose works by Kipling, Wilde and Wells but in the poetry of Blake, Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, all of whom have connections to Sussex.”
The centre has become a hub for a wide range of research, talks, projects and media enquiries, from assistance on a recent exhibition of Mervyn Peake’s work, to input into discussions on popular fantasy series such as George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire. Gray was recently enlisted as mythic and folklore adviser on Hollywood film Snow White And The Huntsman, which stars Kristen Stewart as Snow White and Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen.
Gray’s role was to assist with the symbolism of the film and give it depth. “I think they wanted to convey that this wasn’t just another purely money-orientated Hollywood blockbuster but a respectful reworking of the Grimm fairytale.” Among the suggestions he made was rechristening the dwarves. Rather than those in the script, Gray chose names inspired by Ogham – the medieval “Celtic Tree Alphabet”.
“This was my first experience of advising on a Hollywood film and it was a real eye-opener,” he says. “The sheer scale of the enterprise was incredible.” What did he make of the end result? “I think the film mostly pulled off the balancing act of appealing to different audiences. It was both action-packed but magical and even moving at times, with some deeper messages woven in if you care to look for them.”
The film is one of a number of fairytale adaptations headed for our cinema screens – Guillermo Del Toro is set to direct a version of Beauty And The Beast, while actress Gemma Arterton is slated to star in next year’s Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Gray is delighted. He worries that fairy tale and fantasy – like children’s literature – are often undervalued by the literary establishment, when in fact these genres can teach us a lot. “They are a place where we can articulate very basic human issues that elsewhere might be too basic or crude for ‘proper’ grownup literature and film, for example, being lonely or lost or frightened to death.”
As to what is driving the revival, he suggests the economic downturn as a major factor. “These so-called fairy tales are often about surviving a (murderously) dysfunctional family in a harsh situation. Don’t forget, the Grimms created their book when Germany was an occupied country under French rule. Life was harsh; people did starve to death. Fairy tales take you out of the harsh demands of real life but are also about finding solutions, finding hope, in hard times.”
In September, the centre will mark the bicentenary of the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s first book with a conference set to be attended by “all the big names in the world of fairy tale”, including Marina Warner, Jack Zipes and, potentially, Philip Pullman.
While it is one of several such conferences being held across the world this year, his is different, he says, for emphasising the importance of storytelling alongside the “academic stuff.”
The famous fairy tales have had a “huge” influence on our culture, says Gray. “Fairy tales are to do with the unconscious and how influential is the unconscious on our culture? One reason film adaptations can work so well is that they’re playing with our sense of self. Cinderella, for example, has influenced literature and films from Jane Eyre to the Harry Potter series.
“Most of us can relate to the story of the downtrodden girl sleeping in the cinders, or the downtrodden boy sleeping under the stairs, who gets her or his own back. She or he is the hero of a thousand faces, making good in a dysfunctional family, which is how all families must feel, at least some of the time.”