Fairy tales in their earliest written forms can seem incoherent to a modern reader. They are full of dropped threads, random occurrences, and they often lack logic and context. The girl had a magic spoon. Why? She just did. The boy was walking home one day when he came upon three talking frogs. Was there a whole race of talking frogs? It doesn’t matter. They filled the sleeping wolf’s belly with stones. Why didn’t this kill him? Hush, child, just listen.
For thousands of years, storytellers have been passing on stories that make absolutely no internal sense, and this does not stand in the way of the form’s popularity in the slightest. On the contrary, all the unanswered questions open new storytelling avenues. We can tell the story again and again, inventing new characters or events to give meaning to the vestigial elements of an ancient story. It never gets old.
S.L. Huang’s “Hunting Monsters” (Book Smugglers) launches Book Smugglers’ new digital publishing venture, the first of a series of “subversive fairy tales.” Despite the extensive history of the stories Huang has pulled hers from, “Hunting Monsters” manages to be vivid, insightful, and, yes, subversive without being blunt.
“Hunting Monsters” draws its material from so many sources it’s not really useful to call it a retelling of any one. It tells the story of a young girl, Xiao Hong, living in the wilderness with her mother and Auntie Rosa, existing quietly as huntresses until the King’s Men arrive and arrest her mother for murder. Though all three women are mindful of the existence of grundwirgen – magical beasts who are, for various reasons, considered persons under the law – it is possible that Xiao Hong’s mother has killed one of them.
Though all three women are mindful of the existence of grundwirgen – magical beasts who are, for various reasons, considered persons under the law – it is possible that Xiao Hong’s mother has killed one of them.
Fairy tales are groaning with what Huang has termed grundwirgen, from Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast through East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Snow White and Rose Red, and Puss in Boots. Huang uses this common theme to explore what sort of world their presence makes for those who interact with them. What does it mean for a woman to be beholden to a literal predator? How does one protect oneself from legal “people” who can swallow you whole? What does a person become in the aftermath of a violent altercation with one?
Both Xiao Hong’s mother and Auntie Rosa have histories with grundwirgen, but the narrative stays with the daughter, who has never even seen one. Where a fairy tale might tell the single story of a girl’s relationship with a magical creature, Huang’s story draws out the logic of a world where enchanted animals might be everywhere and asks how a girl might grow up in that world. How can that world be made safe and fair when the monster was once a prince and is favoured by the law? Well, isn’t that the same question we ask ourselves every day? Huang offers us an answer in the first line: “My mother taught me to shoot.”
“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) (Fantasy Magazine #58 – Women Destroy Fantasy!) is much lighter fare, but perfectly captures every delightful and clever thing to love about a fairy tale. This is a story told on the periphery of Cinderella, but the protagonist’s total disinterest in the princess narrative being offered her makes the story much more fun.
Hannah is a lord’s daughter, but she prefers gardening. When her father remarries and Hannah acquires a new stepmother and two stepsisters, she is completely indifferent to them. The world that does not concern carrots, bees, and nasturtium seeds is completely without consequence as far as Hannah is concerned. Still, a dryad in her garden has taken an interest in her, and by way of an enchanted titmouse, gifts her three beautiful dresses in which to attend the Duke’s parties.
But Hannah really doesn’t care about the Duke’s balls, nor his son, and definitely not the dresses the dryad has created for her. Kingfisher pokes fun at the lack of autonomy traditionally given to fairy tale heroines in the banter between titmouse and girl, as the poor enchanted creature tries to convince her to attend despite her total lack of interest. When ultimately he does dangle the right incentive, her attendance just embroils her in social obligations she doesn’t want.
Happily, Hannah is a clever girl, and clever girls in fairy tales get themselves out of their own messes just fine.
Happily, Hannah is a clever girl, and clever girls in fairy tales get themselves out of their own messes just fine. Kingfisher puts all the power in Hannah’s ability to say no and mean it. Though the characters who surround her are familiar to us from our varied Cinderella readings, Kingfisher has taken a radical leap and made them reasonable people who would rather not chop off their toes or marry people they don’t recognize. A particularly nice touch is the younger of the two step-sisters, who is presented first as “kind, in a vague, hen-witted way, and obsessed with clothing,” but who eventually is revealed to have a healthy interest in fashion design and manufacture. I really liked her by the end, and she didn’t even have a name. The only character really dedicated to the harsh drama of an old-style fairy tale is the dryad, but Kingfish doesn’t let her have a say.
Marie Brennan’s “Daughter of Necessity” (Tor.com Oct. 1St 2014) is not a fairy tale, but a retelling of Penelope’s story from Homer’s Odyssey. Trapped in her house by the obligations of a host and waiting for her husband to come home, Penelope has spent three years weaving the fates of her unwanted guests in an effort to get rid of them. Brennan’s take gives Penelope more power than Homer did, though even with her goddess-given powers, she remains trapped by her own fate.
Brennan’s story is simply structured: Penelope is in her chamber weaving the supposed shroud, but is instead weaving potential futures for the hoard of men living off her hospitality. As she weaves each possibility, we are treated to a little vignette. I would advise the reader to go in to the story with a fresh memory of Penelope’s myth, lest these vignettes lose their meaning – these are unfamiliar characters framed by Penelope’s unrelated ruminations. Once, however, the tale’s roots become clear about half way through the story, Penelope’s true conundrum becomes clear. She has a little of the gift to weave fates, but not enough to control it. No matter what she weaves, the result is abhorrent to her. She has not been stalling for three years – she has been failing.
She has a little of the gift to weave fates, but not enough to control it. No matter what she weaves, the result is abhorrent to her. She has not been stalling for three years – she has been failing.
Fate is a tricky narrative tool to invoke well. The heroism displayed by Penelope in Homer’s original is laudable because it was entirely of her own making. She stalled that ravening hoard of men for twenty years all by herself. In Brennan’s telling, Penelope’s luck turns with a sacrifice and divine intervention. Having been called out for stalling by her maid, Melantho, her thread is all taken and burned. She lops off her hair and tosses it onto the pyre, where it is transformed into golden thread by a goddess. Now blessed, Penelope can weave the final fate of the men in her house – the one we know from Homer.
Who saved Penelope – the goddess, or Penelope herself? I fear it was the former. Even her sacrifice of hair feels light – appropriate from a tactile perspective, perhaps, but not in terms of the weight of lives that are at stake.
Perhaps this is why I prefer fairy tales to Homeric epics. Transforming Penelope from a clever woman and a trickster in her own right to the recipient of divine gifts dims her greatness. But that’s fate for you.