Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Fairy Tales for Grown-ups

Review by Colleen Mondor

In the 1990s, editors Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow brought together a vast group of authors and poets in a series of books collecting fairy tales for adults. Recently reissued by Prime Books, these stories are "old school" in that they bring fairy tales out of the nursery and return them to adult settings where they can be better appreciated in all their non-Disneyfied glory. They are stories laden with sex and violence, betrayal and despair, shock and awe. They are often, as described by Datlow and Windling in the introduction to Black Swan, White Raven "downright bawdy." In the capable hands of downright masters, and under the guidance of two truly exceptional editors, these fairy tales are at turns wry and riveting, horrifying and tender. The entire human condition is on display and for those who might have missed them the first time around, the reissues are true treasures worth seeking out.

Right off the bat, there are several standouts in Black Swan including Midori Snyder's very sexy take on a Sudanese tale, translated to a rural American setting, "The Reverend's Wife." (If ever a story said "fairy tales for adults," it's this one.) Tackling the nature of marital fidelity while also spinning on what it means to be a good wife, Snyder has a lot of fun here with a slight trickster take on woman having the upper hand but using their power for the sake of saving their marriages (well, okay and having some fun too). It's the sense of fun and humor that really makes this story succeed and that the gender roles are reversed to a certain degree. It's certainly bawdy in the best use of the word and also carries a sense of coyote and raven tales in how the women get one over their husbands (to everyone's benefit).

In the same volume, Joyce Carol Oates does something very different but truly remarkable with her contemporary story "In the Insomniac Night." Readers will easily recognize the protagonist, a single mother burned over a recent divorce and custody battle which have left her paranoid about her ex-husband's intentions. Riffing on numerous variations of a single fairy tale, Oates shows how possession can work on someone, driving them nearer and nearer to selfish delusion (echoes of Tolkien's Gollum). Her protagonist wavers from caring mother to every noncustodial parent's nightmare as Oates ratchets up the tension over a period of only a few hours. This is a small story told quite effectively which carries just enough hints of fantasy to move it beyond thriller territory.

After Margo Lanagan's devastating "Goosle," (published in the 2008's The Del Rey Book of Fantasy and Science Fiction) I am now on the lookout for variations on "Hansel and Gretel." Garry Kilworth has an original spin here with "The Trial of Hansel and Gretel" which is set after the death of the witch and raises more than a few questions as to who was truly guilty. The children are murder suspects due to both their words and proclaimed actions and yet in their testimony, Kilworth is careful to keep them just the right side of innocent so readers are uncertain if they are the traditional victims portrayed in the past or more devious (and modern) child-killers. What's nice is that Kilworth stays with the familiar story but still manages to give it a completely different spin as well as a surprise ending with the infamous woodcutter and his wife, the children's parents.

John Crowley takes a different approach on the classic with his story "Lost and Abandoned" which is told from the perspective of the father and barely mentions the unnamed children at all. In this contemporary tale of divorce, job loss and remarriage, the narrator explains how a family can be broken and children abandoned, a situation all to familiar to American society. "Poverty is not a crime," he opines, and neither is infatuation and is it his fault if his children can not learn to love another mother? We are abandoned, he suggests, and thus we abandon others. The true path home is one of forgiveness he feels, although it is likely the children in would not agree. But Crowley's story is not about the children, it is about parents who each have their own set of priorities and merely acknowledges the many many children along the way who find themselves lost because they do not fall high on that list.

This is probably the first Hansel and Gretel tale I have read that truly makes the story timeless—that highlights the universal nature of their abandonment. The witch, ever the foil in the plot, is completely absent here as is the gingerbread house. Crowley focuses on that father who chose someone else to the detriment of those he was supposed to protect, and how easily he convinces himself that whatever might come afterwards was never his fault.

At some point I would love to see a collection of Hansel and Gretel stories and study their evolution and alteration over the years.

There are several versions of "Sleeping Beauty" and "Briar Rose" in the books, which is to be expected as "waiting for your prince [princess] to come" is one of the more fundamental themes in so much literature (fairy tale or otherwise). Nancy Kress has a very original approach with "Summer Wind" in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. Writing from the prospective of Briar Rose, she tells the story of cursed imprisonment not as passive unconsciousness but rather vivid awareness. Rose wanders the palace, caring for all of her sleeping family and servants and watches one prince after another find bloody death in their rescue attempts. She reaches a zen awareness of her life but still in the end, wishes she had been able to live it, which is the point of all these stories however they might get lost in romance.

Joyce Carol Oates goes modern again in "The Crossing" where her incarnation of Rose is waiting for... something. Martha is staying with her elderly aunt, thinking about her husband Roger and wishing she could go home but there is something that keeps her in this house, in this small town, waiting for a train that will not come. Oates drops hints about the truth, about Martha's true location, and it becomes clear that like Rose she is indeed waiting but not for a prince to come but rather a prince to let go. In the end she had to decide on her own and be strong when her prince can not. (Which is the message, perhaps, of Kress's story as well.)

Midori Snyder returns with another sexy tale of love in "Tattercoats" found in the Black Thorn, White Rose collection. Again we have a marriage in crisis and a marital bed which seems full of strife rather than blissful romance. A bit of magical transformation is called for to set things right, and some trickster overtones are here again, a sly wit on the part of the wife who believes she is teaching her husband a lesson. But in this case (unlike "The Reverend's Wife") the husband is not a fool and has a surprise or two of his own. Snyder's stories seem to more ably address themes of marriage and commitment and the significance of sex to a long term relationship than most. She doesn't get mired down in sophomoric descriptions but rather celebrates the power of healthy attraction in a mature couple, and the work (okay, it's not exactly work) that must go into keeping a love alive.

One interesting trend in these collections is the larger presence of characters who are often little more than cardboard villains in the popular tellings. Crowley does this with the father in "Lost and Abandoned" but Pat Murphy's stepmother in "The True Story" is by far the boldest assertion to just how foolish some of the characters in the old stories were. In this tale of the true danger that faced Snow White and the efforts taken to save her in Black Swan, Murphy demands much of her readers insisting they recognize their own culpability in celebrating tales of weak princesses and evil stepmothers who are alternately saved by bland princes or hunted down and killed. Why do we believe these stories she asks—or more importantly for the reader, why do we keep repeating them? Why always hate the evil stepmother without pausing a moment to ask about the absent father who never saves his daughter. How come he can be a good man turned bad by a woman (it's always a woman that leads the poor man astray) and blameless in all that follows. In other words, where on earth is Daddy and why the heck isn't he on top of all that is going on with his daughter and his wife? (I thought of this recently when watching The Tale of Desperaux in the theater with my son and a friend. If ever there was a story about a father out to lunch, it's that one.)

In Ruby Slippers Milbre Burch's "The Huntsman's Story" also focuses on a minor character from Snow White. Written in response to the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klass, in two brief pages Burch manages to pack a punch that defies most, if not all, rules of plot and story. The huntsman, the man who sets off so willingly into the woods to murder Snow White (and also appears in "Red Riding Hood" and elsewhere) is the smallest of side characters but what do we know about him, Burch asks, don't we wonder what he does when not sent on a mission, when not escorting young girls into the forest for the conveniently wicked stepmother? "Many people find the huntsman's part in the old story forgettable," she writes. But we do so at out own peril is clear. He comes when his is bidden but from where and why? And what do we do if he "takes the story into his own hands"? What do we do if he hunts without orders and who do we blame; who do we blame for a fairy tale gone horribly wrong by a man who played his part too well?

"The Huntsman's Story" is a lesson in writing that should not be missed.

The more horrifying tales in the collections might take you a bit surprise, but they stay true to their roots in a way that light tales can not. Tanith Lee's "The Beast," also in Ruby Slippers shows what the pursuit of beauty can bring and makes you wonder why Beauty had to be so physically attractive to begin with. Why did true love for the beast have to come in such a perfect package—wasn't the point just supposed to true love, shouldn't that have been enough? Not so for Lee's Beast but his Beauty is far smarter than he gives her credit for as well; she's Nancy Drew at heart and that is what saves her, and helps her save a whole lot of others in this very grisly and sensual mystery.

And then there is Ann Bishop's "The Match Girl." I loathe Hans Christian Anderson's original story; I loathe the entire idea behind the story. Bishop seems to have stared Anderson in the face though, looked him up and down, and said "If you're going to tell it Hans, then you should tell it without fear and without mercy." And lord does she ever. This is a brutal tale, the most brutal tale you can conceive of. It is about torture and abuse and the reasons why a little girl would embrace the match, why the match would be all she could hope for. It's hard to read; I almost had to force myself to read it, but Bishop's description at the beginning, her assertion that "I can say only this: while I embellished or modified details to fit the fictional place, I didn't make up the instruments of torture. They all exist," made me read "The Match Girl." I knew it would hurt and it did but I thought it was only fair to her, to that perennially suffering dead girl, that the story should hurt. And maybe that is what has made me hate it so much for so long; Anderson made it too easy to read and Bishop does not; she makes you suffer all the way through.

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to write this story.

Isabel Cole's "The Brown Bear of Norway" from Black Thorn, White Rose was one of my favorite reads out of all three books and draws from the "animal bridegroom" tradition. It is a contemporary tale set in New York City that is heavy with images of winter and the north. This is a story where language and setting equally set the tone as a young student dancer enters into an unusual pen pal relationship with a Norwegian friend. It magically becomes physical in a way she can not understand nor resist. Her "Bear" remains unseen until a small error is committed and she must prove herself by searching for him. The journey takes her around the world and into odd circumstances, strange conversations and all sorts of fairy tale settings. In the end, her love and commitment proven Bear is found and revealed. They walk away, the snow falling again. "The Brown Bear of Norway" might very well be one of the most romantic stories I've ever read which might escape teenagers in the thralls of vampire love (sigh) but for this adult was something wonderfully sweet indeed.


Black Thorn, White Rose
Prime Books 2008
ISBN 0-8095-5775-4
385 pages

Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears
Prime Books 2008
ISBN 0-8095-7150-5
416 pages

Black Swan, White Raven
Prime Books 2008
ISBN 0-8095-7254-0
366 pages

All edited by Terri Windling & Ellen Datlow. The series also includes Snow White, Blood Red, Silver Birch, Blood Moon, and Black Heart, Ivory Bones.


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