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.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Wily Wizard and the Wicked Witch

The title story in this collection has a witch who lures people into her treehouse to eat them, and warns each traveler, all smiling, that she's going to eat them after she fattens them up.  They never believe her, and so they come in and are eaten.  The townspeople complain about it in the best way:
"If only she didn't tell them herself," said the mayor, "then I could forbid the whole thing.  But she makes it all quite clear beforehand and the people go in willingly."
"Just so," agreed the clergyman.  "That is the awful thing about it.  Look here: I can understand her enticing strangers in to make them fat and then baking them in her oven.  I don't approve, but I can put myself in her place, and we all have our faults.  But the fact that she speaks the truth about it is too much for me."
Tourism to the village is falling off, so they hire a wizard to deal with her.  As one does.

The Wily Wizard and the Wicked Witch is one of those books that makes me deeply grateful for small libraries with small budgets that don't weed their collections regularly.  I first read it in the tiny one room library in Pawlet, Vermont.  The library has since moved to what used to be the K-2nd grade school across the street (where I went to 2nd grade).  At the time I went there, the library was in one room of an old white wooden-sided building and the town hall was in the other room, and the whole thing perched above a steep bank that rolled down to the river below.  There were sheep nearby.  And there were old and odd and unusual books on the shelves, and the Wily Wizard and the Wicked Witch was one of them. Lovely stories with dark humor, twisted logic, and a gentle heart.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes

A version of Snow White that has pawnshops and gambling on horse races.  A rhyming, rhythmic condemnation of that dastardly Goldilocks and her unfortunate criminal tendencies.  A pistol-packing, morally ambiguous Red Riding Hood.  Roald Dahl is a dark writer with a good ear, and these are a lot of fun, and very satisfying.  Fine for bright 7 year olds as long as you're ok with your 7 year old reading about murder and crime, which really, if they're reading fairy tales, they're already doing.  Also enjoyable to read out loud to your friends while you cook dinner or do something else that, in true fairy tale fashion, involves knives and/or food.

Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes are parodies, but they contain enough of the core story of each fairy tale to function as stand-alone versions.  You could do a great double feature with Roald Dahl's Goldilocks and some of the recent Goldilocks picture books - maybe the Mo Willems one where Goldilocks is being lured in by Three Dinosaurs, or Leigh Hodgkinson's Goldilocks and Just One Bear, where turnabout is fair play and the bear invades Goldilocks's house.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Favorite Beauty

There are plenty of Beauty and the Beast retellings out there.  My favorite by far is Robin McKinley's Beauty. This seems unfair of me, because McKinley has written more than one Beauty and the Beast retelling, so I worry it may sound as if I am saying "of all your children, I like that one best."  Which means, in turn, that I'll sound a bit silly when I hasten to add that I like all of Robin McKinley's Beauty and the Beast retellings.  There's a very meta bit in Sunshine, where the narrator says "There was a lot you could do with the story of Beauty and the Beast, and I had done most of it, and I did it again now."  I'm perfectly happy to keep reading Robin McKinley Beauty retellings if she keeps writing them.  I will like them all.

But Beauty is one of those books I grew up with, and it has that comfortable feeling for me of a book I've re-read every few years for decades, and so it is my favorite.  When I read other versions, I still hear echoes of this one in my head.

I'd love a really lush, deluxe edition, with lots of interior illustrations.  That type of thing doesn't often tempt me, but I'd make an exception here.  In my fantasy library, I'm voting for a version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, in the style of her covers for the hardcover original edition of Dealing with Dragons.  Ideally, there'd be one of those multi-artist pinup sections in the back, as used to be common in certain comics in the 1990s, and so I could have the Thomas Canty page (for roses!) and the Kinuko Craft page (for gardens and swirly magic), and so forth through all my favorite illustrators from childhood.  Maybe a David Wiesner pinup for the library.  You know, as long as I'm fantasizing.

Wishing you a day full of comfortable and delightful reading in the library of your dreams.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reader's Digest Anthologized Andrew Lang for Me

Reader's Digest (yes, they of the Condensed Books) put together a two volume anthology of The World's Best Fairy Tales, originally in 1967, though the copy sitting around my house was almost definitely the 1977 edition. My hazy recollections from library school are that the 1960s were a boom time for folklore anthologies for children, with an emphasis on collections of tales from one country, region, or culture.  Reader's Digest was probably going along with that trend when they snagged a bunch of stories from the Andrew Lang colored fairy books, and then added in some Andersen and some Grimm and a smattering of other things.  The pictures were by Fritz Kredel again.

I tend to think I didn't have much exposure to the Andrew Lang collections as a kid, and it's true, I didn't read the colored fairy books directly, but I read a number of stories from them via Reader's Digest, and enjoyed them very much.  Since Lang did his anthologizing in the later 1800 and early 1900s, and there was a surge of interest in comparative folklore for children in the U.S. in the 1960s, I'm tempted to believe this sort of thing is cyclical.  If so, I hope that we're ready for a new upswing of interest in folklore from cultures around the world, perhaps this time with a bit less bowlderization and more of the original content and context.  My sense from watching library collections get weeded is that many of the 1960s era collections of folklore and fairy tales from many lands have been pulled from general collections.  They were older, and didn't circulate well.  I'd love to see something new and stunning take their place.

In the meantime, if you don't happen to stumble on a copy of the Reader's digest collection in a thrift store somewhere, and want to read the stories online, I enjoyed the Bronze Ring (from the Blue Fairy Book), Five Wise Words (from the Olive Fairy Book), and The Boy Who Kept a Secret and the Colony of Cats (from the Crimson Fairy Book). 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ambivalent about Andersen

I rarely return to Andersen's fairy tales as an adult.  My early exposure to Grimm's fairy tales came along with a nicely illustrated companion volume of Andersen's tales. And because I read whatever I could get my hands on, I read about the Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, and The Red Shoes.  These stories in particular still frighten me.  And I feel sorrow and pity when I read about the Little Mermaid, trying to do enough good deeds in 300 years as an insubstantial spirit to earn herself a soul.

Most Andersen fairy tales left me disturbed long after the story ended, unable to understand why the characters deserved the fates and punishments they encountered. Perhaps for this reason, I often enjoy retellings of Andersen tales as much as or more than I enjoy the originals.  I love Andersen's Snow Queen, but delight in Patricia McKillip's version of the Snow Queen in the Datlow and Windling edited Snow White and Blood Red.

So I've got very mixed feelings about Andersen fairy tales.  The language is lovely, and the images and characters stick in my mind, but the underlying morality of the fairy tale worlds Andersen creates often does not match well with mine.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Starting out Grimm

The first volume of fairy tales I read was this collection of Grimm's Fairy tales.  It must have been the standard household volume in the 1950s, as both sets of my grandparents had it, along with a matching volume from Andersen.  Every bedroom I knew had a shelf of books, but there weren't a lot of books in common between the bedroom shelves of my paternal grandparents' Manhattan penthouse apartment and my maternal grandparents kit-built chalet on a dirt road in Sandgate, Vermont. These books were in both places.

After family dinners with either set of grandparents, I'd sneak off to the spare bedroom and come back with Grimm's fairy tales.  Then, while grownups drank after-dinner coffee or aperitifs, I'd read about lost children, transformations, and the unfortunate effects of badly worded promises.  The 1945 Grimm's was a bit less expurgated than versions common in the 1980s, so it never came as a surprise to me that Snow White's evil stepmother had to dance to her death in red hot iron shoes, or that Cinderella's sisters cut off their heels and toes (at their mother's urging) to wedge their feet into Cinderella's slipper.

Things I learned from my first volume of fairy tales: Be careful what you promise. Be polite to strangers. Be careful who you trust.

The fairy tales were dark.  There was a lot of death, drugging, betrayal, and chicanery.  There was also poetic justice and humor and beauty and transformation. There was a streak of practicality throughout.  The world of those stories was a world where sometimes you were gifted with the best outcome, sometimes you had to earn the best outcome, and sometimes things were just stacked against you no matter what you did.  Much like the world we live in.