Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde

Reasons to Read Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales

  1. You've been feeling oddly happy lately, and you would like to feel sad instead, in a wistful way.
  2. You love lush, lyrical prose and meditations on the nature of love, beauty, ugliness, sin, and loss.
  3. Your recent reading has been devoid Orientalism and odd body-image issues, and you would really like to change that quickly.
  4. You would like to see young men's bodies described in fiction in a way that doesn't seem exactly sexual but isn't exactly not-sexual either.
  5. You would like a story where someone sacrifices everything and then dies a lonely death, their only consolation the fact that they're a better person than they were before, in that long ago time when they were selfish, self-centered, happy, and not-dead.
Reason number 2 brings me back to Oscar Wilde's stories again and again (that, and the fact that the record I had that played Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant was on the turntable a lot when I was a kid), but there's no denying that there's ugly, messy stuff happening under the surface of that beautiful language. Sort of a combo of "it was a strange time" and "the author was a strange person" with nice side helpings of "ok no I can't even don't kill that poor helpless... I can't look... yup, I'm just going to peek... ah, yup, they died. ok then."

The full collection doesn't seem to be on Gutenberg, but you can sample the style and subject matter: The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde. Or get the whole package from a library: The Poems and Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is gorgeous and lush and precise and suprisingly dark. At least, I've read it a dozen or more times and the darkness always surprises me.  Beneath the lyrical language and the carelessly perfect creation of myth and the details and the friendships there are really astonishingly horrific things happening in this story. It's much like myth, or folklore, or any unexpurgated collection of fairy tales in that way. 

Not that the experience of reading it is horrific, because it's not: it's been one of my comfort reads for decades now.  But this is a book where the darkness is as deep as your own knowledge or inclination to fill in the gaps.  It does that trick the very best fantasy intended for young people accomplishes of saying things in a way that makes them clear to people with the emotional or real-world knowledge to fill in the details, while eliding the specifics to something comfortable enough for those without that experience.

There are dragons and talking cats and enchanted woods and tall white towers and the wars of princes, ancient riddles and broken hearts and friendship and betrayal. Parts of the language feel like Welsh mythology to me and parts feel like Carl Sandburg's poetry, all full of white birds and flowers and love and questions.

Patricia McKillip is still writing things that are luminous and dark and deep. This isn't a bad place to start.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Changeover's Fairy Tale Journey

Margaret Mahy's The Changeover is a beautiful, lyrical book for young adults.  The narrative contains fantastic elements but doesn't, to me, feel like a fairy tale. The titular changeover itself, though, is structured very much around the shape of a fairy tale journey. The language is lovely and haunting, dense with allusion.

"With the coming of the tiger the forest shifted, becoming older and darker.  Moss hung from the trees, and the only sound was the faint trickle and gush of distant water.  Laura now began to feel an ache in her neck and shoulders, as if she were pushing against an intangible resistance, and vaguely thought it might be something like the past, or reality, for a stream of shadowy figures began to flow past her, all going in the opposite direction form the one she and the tiger, slipping distantly through the trees, were following.... She saw dwarfs, lost princes, beautiful girls who had committed themselves to silence in order to save brothers turned into swans or ravens, young men who thrived on sunshine and dwindled with darkness, mutilated maidens who wept over their own silver arms, and then simpler people, three bears, the girl in the red hood, the lost children who found their way home, the lost children who didn't and were covered with leaves by the robins."

If you like young adult novels and are amenable to fairy tale logic, this is a beautifully constructed book.  What I particularly admire is the way Mahy balances the shifting logic of adolescence and of making ones way into the world of adulthood with the logic of the magical events.  The threads of the story refer to each other and interweave with each other, the magical and the mundane, in a way that is precise and organic.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Goblin Market

In fairy tales and urban fantasy novels there's often a goblin market lurking on the fringes of town.  A place where the beautiful and uncanny and dangerous is bought and sold.  I suspect most of the modern markets owe a debt to Christina Rossetti and her poem Goblin Market.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Catherine and her Fate

Catherine and her Fate is a story that barely fleshes out its central idea: do you want to be happy in early life if you know you'll be sad later?  Or would you rather get the sadness out of the way now if you know for sure that means you'll be happy later?  Basically, if dinner is a meal that lasts your whole life, do you start with the pudding and then go on to the dubious vegetable mash, or is vegetable mash first and pudding last?

Catherine says she'll start with the sorrow, please.  That stuck with me all through childhood: the idea that we had a choice about what we waded through.  Of course, in the fairy tale, Catherine knows for certain that her happier days are coming if she slogs through the sorrow first.  The story is only instructive because Catherine lives to claim her reward.  As an adult, I know that's not always the case.  Sometimes it's worthwhile to take your joy first in a life where there are no guarantees.  But as a kid, I think I needed Catherine's story.

Note: I couldn't remember anything about this story, which has always stuck with me, but a Google search for "fairy offers a girl a choice about whether she'll be happy in youth or in old age" brought it right up.  I love living in the modern age.  There are versions online from Thomas Crane and from Andrew Lang's Pink Fairy Book.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Princess Hynchatti

Princess Hynchatti and some other surprises is an early-ish book by Tanith Lee.  It's not the first thing I read by her as a kid - that would be Delirium's Mistress, which my 8 or 9-year old self bought because Winged Lions! Long Hair! Ruined Buildings.  Thank you Michael Whelan cover art for hooking me up with a lifetime favorite writer.

Ok, but Princess Hynchatti.  These fairy tales are somewhere between A. A. Milne, T. H. White, and Patricia Wrede in tone.  Gently sarcastic, very aware of conventions even as they play with them.  Wicked witches want to win prizes for most-wicked, and forgetful enchanters accidentally enchant their own daughters. Spells are broken by common sense and kindness. Princess Dahli is a current favorite of mine, with a princess who handles a Cinderella-like role in very clever fashion.  Another princess, trapped by a Rapunzel-like curse, takes matters (and her unruly hair) into her own hands. 

The stories are consistently sweet without being saccharine.  It's often easy to forget that writers who can and do write dark and wild and erotic can also write sweet and gentle.  Throughout her career Tanith Lee has written children's and YA books as well as adult work, and these stories are lovely fairy tales. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Fables - Fairy Tales in New York

Fables is a smart, sophisticated comic series starring a cast drawn widely from fairy tales, folklore, nursery rhymes and fantastic literature (as well as the literature of the fantastic). The stories play with old tropes, create new ones, and juxtapose characters very familiar and nearly forgotten (or perhaps misunderstood) in intriguing ways.

If you like comics, I'd say start Fables at the beginning, with the first volume.  Snow White, Prince Charming, Cinderella, Jack (of both Giant-Killing and Beanstalk fame) and the Big Bad Wolf (along with a cast of thousands of others) are living in Manhattan.  Prince Charming is a cad and a playboy (All those princesses who married Prince Charming?  It was always the same Prince Charming.) Jack gets into trouble, and Rose Red doesn't much enjoy living in her more famous sister's shadow.  The writing is sharp and knowledgeable about folklore both famous and obscure.  The art is lovely, detailed, and expressive.  The narrative in the first volume is fully self-contained, and reasonably representative of the story as a whole to date - if you like the first volume, you'll probably continue to enjoy it (and there are 17 or so sequel volumes and two spinoff series to date), but you can also stop at the end and have gotten a complete story.

If you're not such a comics fan but will sample graphic novels here and there, try 1001 Nights of Snowfall, a stand alone graphic novel in the series done in a variety of fully-painted formats, a set of stories within stories.

Credit notes: Fables is written by Bill Willingham. Mark Buckingham has drawn (I think from checking my shelves) most of the volumes since the first one. My apologies for not listing all the artists on the title! Comics, like albums and movies, have complicated credit lists.