[GUEST REVIEW] Ben Blattberg on ONCE UPON A TIME: NEW FAIRY TALES Edited by Paula Guran

Ben Blattberg is a freelance writer currently living in Texas. He blogs about movies and story structure at incremental-catastrophe.blogspot.com and makes jokes on Twitter @inCatastrophe.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology of eighteen fairy tale revisions, reinterpretations, and responses.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Shows the wide range of fairy tales with variety of excellent stories–from fairy tale adventure all the way to bleak fairy tale-style retelling of real-life tragedy; brief authors’ notes illuminate stories’ meaning, writing.
CONS: Some stories miss the mark; some stories depend on familiarity with the source fairy tale.
BOTTOM LINE: Solid anthology for fairy tale lovers and revisionists.

Fairy tales are rarely what we think they are. That’s the overall message I take from Paula Guran’s interesting, instructive, and thankfully spoiler-free introduction of Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales. As Guran notes, fairy tales are conservative lessons about the danger of transgression–unless they’re progressive and liberating tales of transgression. Fairy tales are misogynistic tales of witches and virgins–unless they’re feminist stories of wise women and the discovery of sex. Fairy tales are timeless–unless they’re tied to their particular time. And so on. Perhaps the one thing we can say for certain about fairy tales is that they contain some measure of magic, of wonder, of otherworldliness. And that’s a pretty loose foundation on which to build a genre.

With this openness in mind, Guran set no boundaries for these stories and merely looked to collect “new interpretations of the old or an original story inspired by earlier fairy tales.” Even with that loose assignment–and even though almost each author is inspired by a different story (only “Sleeping Beauty” gets two)–there are some broad categories we can identify.

For instance, there’s the category of the revisionist fairy tale: a story that takes the original fairy tale and shifts by switching point of view or emphasizing some overlooked aspect. (In realist fiction, think of the transformation of Gone With the Wind into the African American-centered The Wind Done Gone.) For an excellent example of this, A.C. Wise takes the “The Six Swans”–the story of a sister saving her brothers from transformation–and rewrites it from the POV of a brother who might like life as a bird. The result, “The Hush of Feathers, the Clamour of Wings,” is a rich story of sacrifice and selfishness that can stand on its own, with only minimal knowledge of the original.

By contrast, Jane Yolen’s short “The Spinning Wheel’s Tale” riffs on “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of the innocent spinning wheel. While it’s a promising idea to give voice to voiceless objects, this story didn’t entirely engage me, perhaps because it was more wedded to the source material than other stories here.

Also in this category of revisionist works, we could place Genevieve Valentine’s “The Lenten Rose,” a lyrical story that looks at the dark heart of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Andersen’s story basically ends with “everything was OK”–to which Valentine’s response is “Not so fast.” (I highly advise that you read the original before this.) Similarly, Erzebet YellowBoy’s troubling “The Mirror Tells All” explicitly takes the mother-daughter conflict of “Snow White” and turns it into a distressing magical realist tale about love and withholding.

Another category we could identify here are those stories that take the fairy tale source and twist the story into another genre. For instance, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Road of Needles” takes “Little Red Riding Hood” and shifts it into science fiction: instead of visiting a sick grandmother, Kiernan’s heroine has to visit a malfunctioning AI; instead of wandering a dark forest, she’s wandering an orbiting bio-dome; instead of being hunted by the wolf, Kiernan’s “Red” is haunted by a strange wolfish apparition that may simply be her guilt. Readers who prefer fairy tales to science fiction might find this the most difficult story to get through, but the work is worth it, as the story works through many of the same issues as “Little Red Riding Hood”–family, danger, support–and outlines a role for fairy tales to play in our lives, even in orbiting bio-domes.

Similarly, Richard Bowes takes “Puss-in-Boots” and places it in a sort of dystopic New York dominated by catty taste-makers and unaccountable trends (No Exit Comedy, Crisis Fashion). Yoon Ha Lee takes the Korean figure of the Dragon King Under the Sea, with its fateful/fatal treasures and turns it into a fantasy story, “The Coin of Heart’s Desire.” As Lee notes, this story owes as much to the illustrations of the Dragon–and to her grandparents own treasures–as it does to the story; and the resulting story seems less like a fairy tale revision than like a Yoon Ha Lee story, with its own mix of fantasy and surrealism. As the first in the collection, Lee’s story feels a little out of place, except for its high quality.

Less successful for me was the urban fantasy twist Cinda Williams Chima gives to Great Lakes folklore in “Warrior Dreams.” Chima writes one of the most fist-pumping author notes, writing that she enjoys mixing real-world issues with fantasy and that, “I’ve discovered I can get away with a lot in a fairy tale.” (Well, I fist pump at that–and want to go off writing fantasy that deals with real issues.) But while her portrait of a homeless veteran with PTSD is sympathetic and serious, the folkloric gloss of water spirits and grindylows doesn’t help me process the real-world issues she brings up.

A third category–home to most of my favorite stories–is made up of those stories that seem most like fairy tales themselves. These are stories that take place “Once upon a time.” For instance, Tanith Lee’s “Below the Sun Beneath” is a rewriting of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, but knowing that isn’t really necessary to appreciate the story. Lee revises the story in some little ways that unmistakably updates the story’s message but does so without giving it an entirely new setting or tone.

In the same category, probably my favorite story, Theodora Goss’s “Blanchefleur” is a delightful fairy tale of a young man set three tasks; of talking animals; of a kingdom that needs rescuing; and of a (hinted-at) happy marriage. And while Goss’s story has many of the tropes and all of the charm of a traditional fairy tale, it feels like a thoroughly modern story, without any of the strange holes or unfortunate baggage of an older fairy tale.

Similarly, Kaaron Warren takes the Russian tale “Sivka Burka”–that starts with a dead man asking for bread from his sons–and invents a story of a daughter made (for all intents and purposes) out of bread. While this sounds like something that the Brothers Quay or Jan ҆vankmajer could make into a disturbing movie, Warren turns in a funny and whimsical story of how bread-daughter Doe fulfills a cruel man’s bizarre wish for some post-death nookie. For those who think of fairy tales as sanitized children’s stories, Warren’s tale should be a welcome wake-up.

I’d also probably include in this category Angela Slatter’s “Flight”, which (as she notes) mixes two other fairy tales into a strange conglomeration that still feels like a single fairy tale; Nisi Shawl’s examination of a mother-daughter curse in “Lupine”; and Cory Skerry’s “Castle of Masks,” which has an ending that felt out-of-place rather than surprising, but was such a fun version of “Beauty and the Beast” with cross-dressing and transgressive relationships that I’d still recommend it; and “Eat Me, Drink Me, Love Me” by Christopher Barzak, a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem “Goblin Market.”

My final category includes those stories that take fairy tale tropes and re-purpose them for not-so-fairy tale stories. (Like I said, these are loose categories; so if there’s overlap, it’s because I’m not so good with boundaries. For more on that, ask my therapist.) For instance, Priya Sharma’s “Egg” takes the typical fairy tale trope of a wished-for daughter and a witch offering that bargain, and turns it into a disturbing (in a good way) look at a mother dealing with a developmentally different child. While this story has a fairy tale start, its vision of real-world suffering was nearly unbearably painful to read. (Again: in a good way.)

In a way, Nathan Ballingrud’s meditation on story in “The Giant In Repose” might fit here, with a fairy tale hero walking away from his fairy tale life in order to live a plainer sort of life. While it explores that interesting area between Story and regular life, except for the character of the companion Crow who wants the hero to complete the journey, this story hasn’t stuck with me.

More difficult to read–and my other favorite story of the collection–is Ekaterina Sedia’s “Sleeping Beauty of Elista,” our second “Sleeping Beauty” story. Sedia takes the real 1989 outbreak of AIDS in hospitals in Elista (in what was the USSR) and adds some “Sleeping Beauty” tropes: a witch, a curse, a (needle) prick, and a long sleep. There is some comfort and hope here; but unlike all those fairy tales that give us solvable tasks and malicious witches, Sedia’s story has a gut-punch in its notion that “most curses are not manufactured out of malice or pained outrage, but rather they happen, shaped by the whims of history and coincidence…”. This rub between fairy tale meaning and comfort and real world meaninglessness and discomfort gives this story a bittersweet, fascinating aftertaste.

And its in that area that this anthology shows its value most: in giving a range of stories that are all fairy tales and also something else; stories that play with old tropes and new worlds; stories that fail to capture–because what could?–the limitlessness of fairy tales. That sounds a little blurby, so let’s get back to reviewing:

While some of the stories may require some external reading, Guran helpfully provides some links in her introduction to websites of interest. And while a few of the stories may not entirely succeed, most of the stories are worth reading, and the best ones show that old fairy tales can still entertain or trouble us in useful ways, as the best literature does. And while this collection doesn’t answer a lot of questions about fairy tales, these stories do ask some useful ones.

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