Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Fairy Tales

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

I wanted to call this article "Fairy Tales for Adults," but I just knew that was going to attract all the wrong sort of attention (and maybe disappoint too many readers when they saw what it was really about!). You have to read this with that title in mind however, because that really is what I'm discussing. Once upon a time, fairy tales were primarily told to adults, as amusements in royal courts or as cautionary tales by bards and troubadours. A long time ago, before Walt Disney, before the PTA and political correctness turned stories like "The Little Mermaid" into happily ever after, there was the bloody, dangerous, terrifying world of the night things. This was the place where the Little Mermaid died (as did the Little Match Girl, and a whole host of others) and the warning was always implicit in the tale: if you're not careful, this could happen to you. You could be left like the stepsisters in Cinderella with half your feet cut off trying to fit in those damn shoes, or pregnant like poor Sleeping Beauty who doesn't wake up until after the babies are born (Prince Charming, my ass). Bad things could happen the storytellers said, and the adults and children who listened (some more eagerly than others) took those tales to heart. They were horror stories, not goodnight stories. And if you weren't smart and quick and careful, then they could happen to you.

Modern takes on the old fairy tales have found some success over the years, but in the past decade they seem to be reaching a renaissance of sorts. So-called "mythic fiction" has seen a lot of activity in the publishing world, with authors like Gregory Maguire, Charles de Lint, Midori Snyder, Terri Windling, Jane Yolen and Pamela Dean making their marks on their field. There are many many others as well. What these talented writers (and in the case of Windling, a extraordinary editor) have done is take the old stories, the oldest stories, and remade them to fit more modern times. In some cases the change is more dramatic than others (de Lint's rendering of Jack the Giant Killer as a female fiddle player in modern Ottawa is one of the more surprising), but always they deliver on the promise made when the stories first were told. "Listen and I will tell you something you never imagined," they say, "listen and I will tell you a story of what might be, of what could be, of what very well might be happening right now. Just listen, and I will tell you a story that you will never forget. They are doing as fine a job as Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault and even Madame Leprince de Beaumont (she wrote Beauty and the Beast... why don't we all know her name?) For fans of the genre, and I'm one of them, contemporary authors deliver grandly on those long ago promises. I hope that I can tempt you now into checking out a few of them on your own.

Pamela Dean's version of the "Tam Lin" takes place in a Midwest college campus during the Vietnam War. There is no reason to think that the Queen of Faery is living here, or that sharp intrigue in the form of stolen bodies and ransomed souls is critical to the plot. There is just Janet, your typical freshman, her roommates Christina and Molly, and a host of good looking guys they meet and date as they navigate through the halls of higher education. Admittedly, Janet's faculty advisor, Melinda Wolfe, is a bit mysterious and even maybe forboding, but there's nothing definitively wrong about her, nothing obvious. And even though you know that danger is brewing, (the book is called Tam Lin after all), still it's not right there declaring itself at the end of every chapter. It's waiting for you to find it, to believe it is there. It's waiting to punch you in the gut when you least expect it. Then a whole lot happens really fast, and the ballad of Tam Lin has its final verses for Janet and Thomas and everyone else at Blackstock College.

Okay, so I love it. This is probably one of my all time favorite books. I had to read it twice to soak it all in, to get each and every nuance (there is a lot of Shakespeare in here, so that's a lot soaking, man!). But Dean has made it so rich, so deep, that you feel like you are immersed in the college life again. She has taken a Scottish ballad from hundreds of years ago (not technically a fairy tale but pretty close) and somehow made it part of 1970s America, and she did it so easily and smoothly that it is hard to imagine anyone singing this song in a different place or with different characters. She captured the tale and moved it to a bunch of hippie girls living in the dorm debating love and life and trying to figure out if they are being haunted or not. It would never have occurred to me to place this ballad in this setting, although when you read Dean's Afterword, it all makes perfect sense. That is the beauty of the modern fairy tale however: it is a retelling of what we know but not a rewrite. So of course Janet should be in college when so much seems to be on the line (your whole life for God's sake, what are you going to do with your life?!). In college, you are faced with the choices that will shape your life forever, and that is really what is at the center of Tam Lin: deciding the fate of your life in a moment, with no turning back, no second chances.

Charles de Lint is much more direct with his retelling of Jack the Giant Killer, which in a lot of ways is all about getting a second chance. Jack is Jacky this time, a nineteen year-old fiddle playing girl who is having a personal crisis over who she is and who she wants to be. Pretty typical young adult stuff, but Jacky's angst-filled moment occurs in the middle of a chase through an Ottawa city park between the Wild Hunt, enslaved to the Unseelie Court, and a hob who is running for his life. Jacky sees more than she should and more importantly is marked as an ally to Seelie Court after she intervenes to save the hob. So now she is in the battle whether she likes it or not and soon enough drags her best friend Kate into it as well. They must face the Unseelie Host (a group of giants who command the Wild Hunt), find the Laird's daughter (missing princess, possibly dead) and save the Heart of Kinrowan, otherwise known as all the magic that matters to the good guys. It's action and adventure and even some unexpected romance as Jacky and Kate race from one end of Ottawa to the other looking for allies and slaying monsters. All the while Jacky finds herself on an inner road to discovery as well, finding out who she really is in a place she never knew existed.

It's just a grand epic fairy tale story that has everything the original Jack tales had and then some. Jacky is a very likeable heroine, funny and smart but also completely conflicted, and at least she takes the time more than once to say "What the hell!" The story worked so well that de Lint returned to Ottawa with a sequel, Drink Down the Moon. It focuses a bit more on Kate and is based on the fairy tale Katie Crackernuts. Jacky is ever present though, as are all the same heroes and villains in the first book. The two are published together as Jack of Kinrowan and are a great way to start on the world of de Lint. After absorbing Jacky's world, you will have to go on to The Newford Tales, novels and short story collections that all take place in de Lint's mythical Canadian town. These are not literally based on fairy tales, but dwell in a Wonderland atmosphere where literally anything is possible and elves and fairies are everywhere. De Lint's stories are gritty though. There is pain and abuse and death in his writing, but again, that is how life is. He has themes of redemption and hope, however, and always rewards the quick and clever who more often than not are the true fairy tale heroes. His books are in my "not to be missed" pile and are the hallmark of mythic fiction enthusiasts everywhere.

There are many other authors to be considered, other tales revisited in different ways. Steven Brust took an obscure Hungarian folk tale and made it an exploration of the perils of artistic obscurity with The Sun, the Moon and the Stars. By contrasting the tale of a young gypsy literally in search of the moon, sun and stars with a contemporary studio of young painters who fear they will never be recognized, he manages to make his reader reconsider artistic endeavors as journeys of both visual and emotional achievement. We are, he reminds us, all looking for our own metaphoric place in the universe. Honestly, this book shouldn't have worked. It's wildly imaginative and totally unique, and it really shouldn't have worked. But read it and you will see how well it does, and you will suddenly re-view all those fairy tales you thought you knew to reconsider what the authors might have really meant when they sent heroes off to slay dragons or wander through darkened forests. The world is not so different today, Brust is telling us. We are all on quests of the most serious kind and seeking enlightenment to change our lives forever. (Much cooler to get that message this way instead of sucking up crap from the self help aisle.)

Jane Yolen probably accomplishes the most outstanding rework of a fairy tale with her devastating version of Briar Rose. Set in the present with main character Rebecca Berlin, this is ostensibly the story of a young woman researching her family history. But Rebecca suspects there is something more to a story her grandmother used to tell, that there is some hidden meaning to her grandmother's mysterious past in her version of "Briar Rose." She travels to Poland to find her family roots and soon discovers that the evil her grandmother knew is overwhelming, that Rose's deep sleep was of the most tragic sort. Yolen juxtaposes Rebecca's quest with the story as told by the grandmother so long ago. I will only say that this is the most intense and impressive book on the Holocaust that I have ever read, and I am a huge fan of Anne Frank's Diary. Yolen just takes us to a darker place (if you can imagine that) without being graphic in any way. Perhaps that is why it is all the more disturbing, and why it can not be a book to love, but surely one to adore.

Gregory Maguire drops Snow White into renaissance Italy and gives her the infamous Lucrecia Borgia as guardian in Mirror Mirror. He also went looking for the other side of the story when he placed Cinderella and her family in 17th century Holland for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Midori Snyder manages to create an amazing story around masks, mazes, curses and the Comedia delle Arte in her extravaganza set in Italy, The Innamorati. Gregory Frost placed his Bluebeard in a doomsday cult at the turn of the 20th century for Fitcher's Brides and Kate Dalkey rewrote Anderson's story The Nightingale as a tale of love and magic in ancient Japan (why oh why is this book out of print?). In the broader world of mythic fiction, Kim Aniteau's Coyote Cowgirl explores a host of American Southwest myths when she sends her character, Jeanne Les Flambeaux, on a wild ride into the desert with a talking skull and a quest for personal identity (maybe she should call Jacky Rowan next time and save herself some grief!).

As an initiation into this genre, Terri Windling's Endicott Studio is the place you should visit first. Windling is the creative force behind the Fairy Tale and Snow White Blood Red series which collect some of the best authors in the field today. She has also compiled numerous fairy tale anthologies over the years. (Her most recent, The Faery Reel, with longtime collaborator Ellen Datlow, was published in August.) Windling has also written a novel, The Wood Wife, which succeeds as both a murder mystery and exploration of the spirit world with trickster, rabbit girl and a whole host of Southwestern myths and legends along for the ride.

I could literally go on forever here, I haven't even mentioned Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, Jonathon Carroll, Patricia McKillip, A.S. Byatt and so many others. (Visit Windling's web site and you will find a great list of recommended books and authors.) As a final selling point, you should consider just how deeply fairy tales have immersed themselves in our culture. A surprising sports success is called a "Cinderella" story, a commitment phobic man suffers from a "Peter Pan" complex, a titan of industry is said to be "a giant among men." Wicked stepmothers, dragons, wolves who lurk in the woods, all of these clichés and more came to life centuries ago. We live in a world that depends on fairy tale metaphor to explain itself every day. These stories are our stories, the stories of the most basic aspects of the human condition. They are our common language, and reading them now, in the most modern of retellings, is a wonderful treat. You're not too old for fairy tales, you just think you are. Go read some of the books I have mentioned here and see what you are missing. Go on, I dare you.


Previous Piece Next Piece