[M]ost fairy tales were never initially intended for nursery duty. They have been put there, as J. R. R. Tolkien so evocatively expressed it, like old furniture fallen out of fashion that the grown-ups no longer want. And like furniture banished to the children’s playroom, the tales that have been banished from the mainstream of modern adult literature have suffered misuse as well as neglect.
– Terri Windling
Many adults dismiss fairy tales as being too childish, too sweet and innocent, but fairy tales are far from that. The ones that touch us most deeply are often blunt about the darker side of human nature, filled with violence and atrocities…
– Ellen Datlow
IT WAS the middle of winter, and the snow-flakes were falling like feathers from the sky, and a Queen sat at her window working, and her embroidery-frame was of ebony. And as she worked, gazing at times out on the snow, she pricked her finger, and there fell from it three drops of blood on the snow. And when she saw how bright and red it looked, she said to herself, “Oh that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the embroidery frame!” Not very long after she had a daughter, with a skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony, and she was named Snow-white. And when she was born the Queen died.
- “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, collected by the Brothers Grimm
For me, the above paragraph represents the quintessence of fairy tales: the purity of white versus the feral beauty of red, and blackness that hides just beneath. Because fairy tales are not the “sanitized” stories which we have read in comic books and children’s collections; they are far removed from the bowdlerised fantasies presented by Disney. Fairy tales are primal: they are frightening: they talk of taboo subjects like childhood sexuality, cannibalism, mutilation and the link between pain and pleasure. Blood features in them as prominently as snow – because fairy tales are not meant for children, but adults.
My first experience with the serious analysis of fairy tales was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment; I considered that the definitive work in the field. Now, however, I am better informed. There are a lot of dissenting views from that of Bettelheim (see the SurLaLune website for one example). Ellen Datlow, one of the editors of the book under discussion, says (in disagreement to Bettelheim’s specifications as to what a fairy tale ought to be): “We ought not underrate the subtlety of fairy tales, for their power emerges from the lack of a single, unique ‘meaning’ in each tale. Every listener finds within it something different and personal. Perhaps we must let fairy tales define themselves through the infinite variety of commonalities among them.”
It is to Bettelheim’s contention that a fairy tale must necessarily end happily that Datlow makes the above reply. She confesses herself to be an admirer of the disturbing and distressing aspects of fairy tales. Terri Windling is also of the opinion that fairy tales cannot be limited to saccharine tales for kids: “One significant result of the bowdlerization of the old stories is that the term fairy tale, like the word myth, can be used, in modern parlance, to mean a lie or an untruth. A proper fairy tale is anything but an untruth; it goes to the very heart of truth. It goes to the very hearts of men and women and speaks of the things it finds there: fear, courage, greed, compassion, loyalty, betrayal, despair, and wonder. It speaks of these things in a symbolic language that slips into our dreams, our unconscious, steeped in rich archetypal images. The deceptively simple language of fairy tales is a poetry distilled from the words of centuries of storytellers, timeworn, polished, honed by each successive generation discovering the tales anew.”
This collection is yet another instance of that new discovery. Windling and Datlow have collected tales from a fair cross-section of today’s foremost fantasy authors – most of them retelling old favourites in new light. It is a testament to the strength and endurance of these stories that one can still discover new angles. You will come across many old favourites such as Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel as you travel through these pages: also many of the lesser known characters will make their appearance. However, whatever be the story, there is always the lofty white sky of fantasy above and the blood red earth of horror below; and the guilty pleasure of sex in the hidden crannies and crevices. As the editors say:
It is this interplay of light and shadow that we have sought to explore in creating this collection of stories, combining the Snow White of “high” fantasy fiction with the Blood Red of horror fiction. Some of the stories contained herein fall easily into one or another of these camps; others choose instead to tread the mysterious, enchanted path between the two—both bright and dark, wondrous and disturbing, newly fashioned and old as Time.
As with any collection of stories, this one too, is a mixed bag. I found some really excellent ones here, along with some indifferent fare: to be fair, none of the offerings are very bad. The authors have been faithful to the cause – these are indeed fairy tale retellings (except for the first story – “Like a Red, Red Rose” by Susan Wade – which is a sort of “meta-fairy-tale” combining many motifs). The emphasis is on an alternate point of view, or a subtle (or not-so-subtle, as in the case of “Little Poucet” by Steve Rasnic Tem) enhancement of dark sexuality or horror (“I Shall Do Thee Mischief in the Wood” by Kathe Koja). The editors provide a brief introduction to each story which allows the reader to understand which fairy tale is being retold. This helps a lot with the less familiar ones, as Charles de Lint’s retelling of The Dead Moon (the story “The Moon is Drowning While I Sleep”).
To enumerate a few: there are two retellings of Rapunzel, one in tragic vein and one in comic; two of Little Red Riding Hood, one highlighting the traditional sexual angle of the story and the other, the horrific but with a twist. There is the Frog Prince on a psychiatrist’s couch and Thumbelina. There are Andersen’s Wild Swans on a baseball field, a vampiric Puss-in-Boots (“Puss” by Esther M. Freisner, where the hero of the original story is turned into a despicable villain), a licentious Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) and the Snow Queen.
The stories which stood from the rest (for me) were:
- “Troll Bridge” by Neil Gaiman: A retelling of the “Three Billie Goats Gruff”, the tale is given a twist in the way only Gaiman can do it. It is a fantasy, and at the same time a statement of the human condition.
- “Snow-Drop” by Tanith Lee: Here, in a futuristic SF-fantasy setting, the grim story of death and sex between the evil queen and the innocent girl is played out. However, the queen is not so evil, and the girl is not so innocent. This new take on Snow White fascinated me.
- “Like Angels Singing” by Leonard Rysdyk: The POV (Point of View) is the thing. This story is a striking example of how a turning of the camera changes the movie. Very powerful.
- “The Changelings” by Melanie Tem: The myth of the changeling is ever present in Europe, where fairies steal away one’s human child and put one of their own in its place. This legend has always creeped me out, and so does this story.
However, if I am asked to award the crown for the best story in the collection, it will go to the last one: “Breadcrumbs and Stones” by Lisa Goldstein. This is not a fantasy, but the brutal reality of one of the darkest periods of human history – the Nazi regime. It is the story of a survivor, and her terrible loss: what Hansel and Gretel could have been without the magical elements. This story left me with a lump in my throat, and I understood how Bruno Bettelheim could survive a concentration camp on the strength of fairy tales. The last paragraph of the story captures it all:
It seemed to me that all my life my mother had given me the wrong story, her made-up tales instead of Hansel and Gretel, had given me breadcrumbs instead of stones. That she had done this on purpose, told me the gaudiest, most wonder-filled lies she knew, so that I would not ask for anything more and stumble on her secret. It was too late now—I would have to find my own way back. But the path did not look at all familiar.
Yes, we do need those breadcrumbs, so that we are never lost in the woods.