Know that ever after is a curse;
it compels you to wear the wolf’s teeth
or the ring, the nightgown or the crown,
the glass slipper or the iron shoes
you have no choice or freedom
in this ever after, you have stepmothers
and husband-princes, axes and ovens
and though it may seem otherwise
never enough time
a happily ever after was forged
from fool’s gold and tastes of poisoned apples
the mermaid’s tail was quite enough
but not in fairy tales
no wine will drown the hunger
and every beast must shed their fur
it is like this, a curse:
ever after, ever after
uttered like a fetid prayer
over and over from all our spell-bound throats
Alexandra Seidel was lost to the charm of myth, legend, fairy tale and dreams at an early age. She gave her heart to writing a little while later and must confess that there are few things–if any–she likes better.
Alexandra writes poetry and prose, mainstream and fantastical, funny, horror and anything in between that seems worth writing about. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Electric Velocipede and other places. She blogs about whatever and writing: www.tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com
“The further in you go, the bigger it gets….”
~John Crowley, Little, Big
The Old Woman
I came here from Mother Russia, carrying my house on my back, carrying winter inside the house on my back. The way was sometimes tedious and sometimes treacherous, as such journeys often are, but here I am in this new world, finally and at long last.
But I am old and I am tired, and I must have a daughter to receive my silver birch broom, who will sweep away all traces of me when I am gone from this world.
The House That Ate the End of the World
On the corner of two slow streets sits the brownstone, drinking the sun each morning and washing in the dust each evening. The building has three stories plus a basement of secrets. Mr. Nettles lives on the first floor, a solitary, sharp-faced man who dreams of glass and reads mystery novels. The second story belongs to a family of four: a mother, a father, and their twin daughters. They live a comfortable life, but they dream of more than this middle-class brownstone. The third story houses an old woman, a foreigner recently arrived but who has settled into her rooms as if she was born in the place. Indeed, the other tenants have to remind themselves that they lived here long before Mrs. Koldunya. The girls smell bread and apples in the morning and October fire in the evening.
Amber and Aisha are twins, sisters all their breathing lives, but enemies even longer. They love and hate each other with the same beating heart, would kill anyone who tried to harm the other, but sometimes, in the dark and heavy belly of the night, would like to see the other lying dead and broken nonetheless. When they were eight and in the third grade, the sisters were bullied by a white boy who lived next door; he taunted them, teased them, tricked them. One day he shoved Amber into a mud puddle. Aisha laughed and laughed, then she seized the neighbor boy with a dark look that would have made a wolf bashful and beat him so hard with her small fists that the boy bled and howled and cried for his mother, but Aisha wouldn’t stop beating him until her own mother came outside and pulled her off of him.
The two girls are not quite identical: Amber is shorter, curvier, her skin brown as chocolate and freckled over the nose, a pretty girl, kind-hearted and even-tempered. The good sister, though her twin points out that she is only good because she’s afraid of getting caught. Aisha is tall and slender as a slap, regal and demanding; if her sister is cocoa then Aisha is wrapped in dark chocolate and is sometimes as bitter and biting, but that doesn’t keep the boys from chasing her. Everyone knows Aisha is more beautiful, more ambitious, than her sister or, for that matter, her parents; Aisha is going places, is going to be someone, someday.
Amber and Aisha glance at each other when their mama tells them they need to go upstairs to help out the Russian woman who only last week moved into the top floor of the brownstone. Amber and Aisha have seen this woman—with her prominent nose, her gray hair piled haphazardly on her head, but mostly her big teeth—only from her window, shaking her blanket into the air, the specks glinting in the morning air like diamond dust.
“She’s an old woman,” their mother tells the twins. “She needs some help around the house, and, God love her, she doesn’t speak much English. She’s all alone here, and it will do you girls some good to help out someone else.”
The twins look at each other and Aisha rolls her eyes; Amber looks back at their mother, but she kind of wants to roll her eyes, too.
“Besides,” Mama says, leaning against the doorframe, blowing smoke into the hallway, “Mrs. Koldunya’s loaded. Bet you two will get some reward for your work. That is, if doing something for someone else out of the kindness of your hearts doesn’t suit your fancy.”
“Huh. The rich don’t stay rich by spending their money, Mama,” Aisha says, tossing her head to the side.
“Don’t sass me, girl. Get off your lazy ass and do as I tell you.”
So the girls do just that. Upstairs they go, to the third story.
The door creaks open to reveal a dark room, and Amber and Aisha think the same thing at the same time: we’ve seen this before in bad horror movies, but we’re not so stupid as those fools. Aisha has already turned on her heel and stepped down the first stair when Amber clutches her hand and Aisha looks back. Mrs. Koldunya stands in the doorway, a babushka on her head, of course, and a pestle in one hand and a large mortar in the other; the old woman’s been grounding something into powder. Amber thinks the substance looks like flour, but Aisha thinks it looks like ash.
“Hi,” Amber says, bowing her head slightly. “We’re from downstairs. Our mother said you could use some help settling in.”
“Come,” says the old woman, her accent blooming like ice crystals in their ears. She nods over her shoulder at the dimly lit apartment behind her before retreating into it. The sisters look at one another; Amber shrugs, Aisha raises an eyebrow, and then they step inside.
The sisters are not surprised that the room is filled with strange and exotic items, not entirely visible, not entirely veiled from their eyes. Opened and unopened boxes create a maze of the living room. Aisha looks intently at whatever her glance catches, studies it, wonders at it. Here is the whole world in these boxes, crowns of kings made from bone and branches, skeins of gold spun from plain straw, large eggs studded with diamonds and rubies.
Along one wall, floor to ceiling, hang dark wooden shelves. On each shelf are rows and rows of snow globes, all with their snow falling as if a troop of shakers had just come through and forced winter on each tiny scene. And each one is labeled. Petersburg. Berlin. Paris. London. Madrid. Some snow globes hold people or beasts. Here is Takahashi Keiko, a newborn girl in Japan. Here is Epesi, a gazelle running through the snow on a Kenyan grassland. And here an open grave meant for Davi Azevedo in Ribeirão Preto. Aisha picks up a globe with her name on it and sees her own brownstone made small. Through a tiny third-floor window sees herself looking at herself looking at herself.
Amber is less curious. She purses her lips, sniffs at the air, catches the smell of baking bread, follows it into the kitchen.
“Take the bread out of the oven, doorak!” someone yells at her, but Amber doesn’t see whom. Grabbing a pair of oven mitts, Amber opens the oven door and pulls out two golden loaves of bread. She sets them on the counter, pauses to sniff deeply. “Take the bread out of the oven, idiot!” the voice cries again, and so once more Amber puts on the mitts and pulls two more loaves out of the oven. Three more times she frees bread from the oven, until all of the counter space in the small kitchen is covered with loaves.
Aisha wanders into the kitchen at this point. “I’ll have a slice of that with some butter,” she tells her twin, and Amber doesn’t even glance askance at her sister, just goes to the refrigerator, pulls out a crock of butter, cuts off a thick slice of the warm bread, butters it heavily, and hands it to her sister.
“That’s good bread,” she says after swallowing the first bite. Amber slices another piece of bread and begins to butter it, too.
Wandering into the next room, still eating her third slice of the thick bread, Aisha sees in the hallway a huge stack of apples, their skins bright ruby in the gloom. A voice cries out, “Sort the best apples into a basket, doorak!” Aisha picks up an apple, holds it close to her eye. “My grandmother used to carve up apples to make dolls, you know? She’d take her knife, make these quick and deep little incisions, and damn if she didn’t have a face.”
Again the voice cries out, “Sort the best apples into a basket, idiot!”
“Huh,” Aisha says, kicking the basket and then taking another apple from the middle of the stack, causing all the fruit to tumble into the dark. She takes a bite of the first apple and then of the second, and tosses the fruit into the corner. “That’s how I like them apples.”
The Bed of Light and Feathers
At last, Mrs. Koldunya beckons the sisters into the room at the end of the hallway, smiling broadly with her huge teeth. She chomps them together and it sounds like bones laughing. In the middle of the room is a large bed covered in an even larger quilt. Amber is sure it is handmade, while Aisha just wants to take a nap.
“Make bed,” says the old woman. So Amber grabs hold of the quilt to pull it higher on the bed, but her tugs release a flurry of feathers that float lazily around the room. She pulls again: more feathers.
“No, make bed,” the old woman repeats, sounding angry. Amber keeps trying, keeps failing; she begins to weep a little.
Aisha, who until this point has been leaning against the wall, arms crossed against her breasts, sighs with great exasperation. She walks over, grabs the quilt, and tosses it out the window. “No!” gasps her twin, but Aisha has held onto the edge of the quilt, and she shakes the quilt until the feathers fly into the air, drifting down to the street below in slow white waves.
The old woman says nothing, but she nods.
The Promise of Gold, the Patience of Pitch
The sisters feel as if they have been in Mrs. Koldunya’s apartment for years. “I want to go home,” says Amber, her eyes dew-damp in the flickering candlelight.
“Shut up,” her sister says. “Don’t cry, not now, not here.”
Across the room, the old Russian woman chomps her teeth. “You stay,” she says. “If good, I give gold all over. If bad, I give pitch all over. Stay and work, work, work.”
“Hell no,” says Aisha, grabbing her sister by the shoulder. “She’s lying. There’s no way she’s gonna cover me with pitch if I don’t do her bidding. I am nobody’s slave, no way no how. Huh. I’d like to see her try it, ‘cause I’d slap her old, wrinkly ass all the way back to the Old Country and then some.” She looks Mrs. Koldunya right in the eye.
Amber has to laugh a little at that image; she has no doubt her twin will keep her promise. She dries her eyes. “I’d like to go home, please.”
A minute passes, then two, as Mrs. Koldunya studies the faces of the girls in front of her. Then she nods. “If you must.”
The front door of the apartment swings open, and Amber steps through. No gold covers her, no birds sing her praises, but she is outside of that place where she has felt so very small. Mrs. Koldunya looks at her from across the threshold. “You are a good girl. Go home. Stay good. Be happy.”
Amber turns and skips down the staircase; she doesn’t look back.
Mrs. Koldunya turns to Aisha, who is leaning against the shelves of snow globes. “You are not so good girl.”
“I know.” Aisha tilts her chin up a little.
“You are rude and lazy.”
“If there’s nothing in it for me, sure am,” Aisha says, studying her nails like she’s bored. But she’s not bored.
“You are strong. Proud.”
“Yes, I am.” Stepping forward, Aisha stands on the edge of the threshold to face Mrs. Koldunya. The two women regard each other in silence, and the air around them itches.
“I have much to teach a girl like you.” She holds out toward Aisha a broom made of silver wood.
As she takes the broom and closes the door, Aisha smiles. “Yeah, I thought you might.”
Robert E. Stutts works at a small private liberal arts college in South Carolina, where he teaches courses in fairy tales, creative writing, and adolescent literature. He has just completed his MFA degree through Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.
Beyond these garden walls
this cool night air
to the fey city you walk
towards shining pavement
here is a place lined by silk
steep roof slanted over stone walls
elegant trees arching, forming passageways
what spices are sold here,
what sweet dreams
carried out on linen sheets
wrought iron gates
enclose these cobbled lanes
you passed not through them,
but stepped over damp grass
towards that hint of music
carried by wind above mossy ground
you were pulled here
by those masked crowds
some masked by wood, by horn
by fur by feather)
you were seeking more than just a ball
what lies here is danger unspoken
don’t turn down narrow streets
don’t step where you don’t know your footing
hold your promises like playing cards
close to your heart
take care in what you say
here in this land where words turn to deeds
S. Brackett Robertson is an undergraduate student of anthropology and museum studies. Her poetry has previously appeared in Mythic Delirium. No matter where she finds herself, she tends to be on the prowl for archaic objects and places. She occasionally hangs from the ceiling, but not while walking.
Lily had to remember not to let her daughter see the apples. Whenever Miranda saw an apple, she began to scream. Even a picture of an apple brought tears. It made the grocery store near impossible. Alphabet books were difficult. So many off them started off with A is for apple.
Once Lily carefully cut an apple into cubes. She pushed the skin and core deep into the trash. The few cool whitish cubes she set on a blue plate next to cubes of cheese. Miranda had skipped into the kitchen and screamed.
It took weeks for Miranda to stop accusing her mother of trying to poison her. All white food became suspect. Apples on television made Miranda cringe, and eventually the girl stopped watching television all together.
Every year, on the first day of school, Lily tried to explain this to the teacher. The teachers nodded, their eyes on all the kids, trying to sort out the troublemakers and the pets. They didn’t understand. They didn’t understand until Miranda began screaming. The girl afraid of apples. By third grade all the teachers, kids, and parents knew.
Sometimes another child snuck an apple into the girl’s bag, and they would all laugh when the apple rolled out to her feet. She screamed and jumped on a desk or fell over a chair. The teachers rolled their eyes. “It’s only an apple.”
“What happened?” other parents asked. Her in-laws asked. Her husband asked.
Lily didn’t know. Of course, she suspected her mother. Miranda’s grandmother whispered fantastic tales as she shuffled about the house. The old woman didn’t sit down and tell stories properly. She muttered them under her breath. She leaned into the washing machine grumbling about dwarves. While going out to check the mail she said things about hunters and hearts in boxes. At the grocery store she mumbled about poison. The store manager asked her to leave. She frightened the customers.
Sometimes Miranda’s grandmother sat in the kitchen, clutched at her throat, and coughed as if she were choking. Lily used to call an ambulance, but so many calls and so many accusations of poisoning ended with social services at her door. They talked of a nursing home, but Lily didn’t want to send her mother away.
Now in the fourth grade, Miranda had mastered controlling her screams. She saw an apple and bit the inside of her cheek until it bled.
Miranda loved to take her grandmother for walks. Her grandmother was slow. They had to stop often and sit. They watched people go by. Her grandmother made up stories about everyone they saw. On walks with Miranda her grandmother’s mind was clear.
Years went by, Miranda grew up. Her grandmother never seemed to get older. Her habits stayed the same. Her stoop, her mutterings, her coughing fits all stayed the same. She was her granddaughter’s best friend.
“Miranda,” Lily said one afternoon at the kitchen table. “You’re about to be eighteen soon.”
Miranda sipped her coffee.
“You should get out more with people your own age.”
Miranda added more sugar to her cup. “You always say that.”
“Well, it’s still true.”
“I’m fine.” She stirred her coffee hard. Coffee splashed on the table.
“You spend too much time with your grandmother.” Lily hadn’t touched her coffee.
“Who else is going to spend time with her?”
“You’ve never even had a date.”
“That would make most mom’s happy.” She gulped at her coffee now.
Lily leaned forward. “Miranda. Most mom’s want their children to be happy.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. My prince charming is out there. I’ll meet him when the time is right.” She drank the last of her coffee. “I promised grandmother an afternoon walk to the park.”
They got to the park late in the afternoon. All the colors were washed out by the afternoon gold of the light. They sat on a bench with a view of the fountain, the ice cream vendor, and the man selling balloons. A child ran up to them and handed them a flier for the circus. Only in town until the next full moon, the flier said.
Her grandmother read the flier again and again. “There are dwarves in the circus,” she said.
Miranda laughed. “Why would they agree to be in a circus? Aren’t they just like everyone else?”
Her grandmother patted her knee. “To see the world. To meet the right people.”
“Mom would never let me go. It doesn’t even begin until 10pm. Look.” She pointed to the paper.
“Your mother doesn’t understand you. Like my mother didn’t understand me.” The flier shook in her hand.
“You’ve never told me anything about your mother. What was she like?”
Her grandmother shrugged. “She never wanted me. That’s all I want to say about her.” She put the flier in Miranda’s hand. “I had great adventures a long time ago. It wasn’t happily ever after, but I was happy.”
Miranda put a hand on her grandmother’s shoulder. “Aren’t you happy now?”
“Look at my old hands. They look just like my mother’s.” She tapped at the flier with a bent finger. “This. This, Miry. This is your adventure. I want you to go.”
“Grandmother. I can’t just go.”
“I ran away when I was your age. You can do me so much better.”
They didn’t talk about it anymore that evening. The family went to bed as always. But in the morning, when Lily went to her daughter’s room, she found the bed empty. “Mother,” Lily said, sitting on the edge of her mother’s bed. “Have you seen Miranda this morning?”
Miranda’s grandmother curled her fingers at her throat. “Sweetheart,” she said. “My room smells too much like apples.”
Artist/author statement by Marta Pelrine-Bacon:
“I write modern fairy tales and make art from the pages. I’ve lived happily ever after in Austin for almost 15 years.
Where I grew up–on a long stretch of road in central Florida–my father told me a witch lived in the abandoned house under a cluster of punk trees and moss. Our own house faced a lake big enough for an island in the middle where blackbirds settled for the sunset. Florida is—in case you don’t know–a perfect place to develop an interest in sharp objects. That’s why I write stories with odd twists, turns, and edges.
But I left home at 17 to study English and writing in Indiana. Ended with my Master’s Degree from Kent State University. To see something else of the world I joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Bulgaria for two years. But one way or another I always made art and wrote. I’ve always loved paper, ink, scissors, and glue and my art incorporates as much of these things as possible. The art is made of different types of paper–printer paper, archival paper, tracing paper, and transparencies. Also used are pens, pencils, and charcoal pencils, strings, and sticks.
All the words in the image included here are from my novels and stories. The images are not representational of the writing, but are images I like and find compelling–and perhaps that capture the mood of the story.
I do work with other people’s words, too. I created a CD cover and insert art for a musician using his lyrics and notes. I’ve also used favorite poems or words in other made to order pieces and pieces for fund raisers. My work has been shown three times over three years at Genuine Joe’s Coffee House in Austin and two years in Art City Austin. My work has appeared in Onomatopoeia Magazine.
I make art and write stories in a cluttered corner of my living room late at night while my family sleeps. Art, I believe, can be made anywhere by anyone. Make something.
Read more at mapelba.com or join my facebook group: Words Are Art.”
This is perhaps the most political piece of writing that will ever appear on Cabinet des Fées. We chose long ago to take a stance of showing, not telling, our respect for authors and literature from all corners of the globe. However, in this case we felt a statement of some sort was necessary. Every one of the core staff of CdF is either an immigrant or the child of immigrants, a person of mixed-blood or mixed-culture—not one of us fits nicely into any neat ethnic or religious category. For us, these are matters of rejoicing, these are our strengths, and we take offense that anyone should suggest we — or anyone else — must be assimilated into something other than who and what we are in order to conform to some imaginary idea of what makes a “good citizen”.
At the time of this writing, WisCon 2011 is only a few weeks away. (WisCon, the world’s leading feminist science fiction convention, is wrapping up now, as this introduction goes live.) Many readers of this site will be aware of Elizabeth Moon’s Guest of Honor status having been rescinded after she wrote a deeply offensive LiveJournal post aimed at Muslims, but which also caught in its net a whole host of different types of Americans. For those of you who didn’t read her post, it was a stunning example of the privileged bigotry that permeates many well-meaning conversations about immigration and migrant peoples, and about people in general.
The rescinding of Moon’s honor remains somewhat controversial. The majority of those in the progressive sff community do however recognize that when Moon attacked Muslims as potential terrorists, calling for their forced assimilation, she aimed at most of us who do not fit a particular person’s, any particular person’s, definition of what it is to be American. Moon turned each and every one of us into nonpersons, with the status of “person” only achievable if we leave behind those very un-American things that make us who we are: our assorted cultures, religions, and traditions.
Sadly, in the years since 9/11 the most visible candidates for nonperson status, in America and overseas, have been people of Middle Eastern descent in general and Muslims in particular. It serves us well to remember that Muslims face the challenges in meeting the twenty-first century that all the rest of the world’s peoples do. The Abrahamic religions as a whole represent a beautiful, but tortured, cultural tradition, one facing a difficult project in the adjustment to a changing global and cultural environment. The decision as to whether to follow any particular faith tradition (or none at all) is a personal one, and to be respected absolutely as such. Muslims are a very old and distinguished group of peoples, with a perspective that challenges American culture in ways that are both deep and salutary.
The people who identify with Islam have a long history of self-determination, even as the emerging world order persists in threatening everything they hold dear. They have reason to be mistrustful of the West. So do people of Middle Eastern descent who do not count themselves as Muslims: many are Christian; some are of mixed Muslim and Christian descent; some are from other traditions, including a number of Jews who identify more with Arab culture than with Israeli separatism. Given an ear, they all express pain and anger, but they also are respectful of what has been achieved in Western culture, and do not understand why the West appears to require their humiliation.
The progressive sff community in America has responded to the Moon debacle with expressions of the wish to make people of Middle Eastern descent feel welcome among us. The problem is that one cannot “make” anyone feel welcome. What one can do is to show a person how much their presence in and contribution to this world is appreciated and valued, and to accept gladly that Middle Easterners are neither to be rescued, nor to be absorbed by any narrative not of their own making, including any feminist or progressive one.
We who form the staff of Cabinet des Fées would like to take this opportunity to show our appreciation and recognition of sff writers and fans of Middle Eastern descent. We begin by presenting three authors whose books most certainly fit within our agenda of reviewing work that draws from the traditions of fairy tales and folklore: Joaana Kadi, Ann-Marie MacDonald, and Emile Habiby. A brief biography of each of these authors follows this introduction, and we hope that once you’ve read our reviews, you’ll search out these titles and others so that you can decide for yourself if these writings have a place in your heart, as they most certainly do in ours.
Joanna Kadi (1958- ) is a poet, essayist, and activist born to a working-class Lebanese-American family. She is best known for her essay collection Thinking Class: Notes from a Cultural Worker (1996). She is one of the founding authors of the concept of the intersection of oppression, important to many feminists whose identities cross more than one boundary: for example, she has interrogated classism in the queer and gay-positive communities and anti-Arab prejudice among feminists. She also writes out of her experiences as a lesbian and a survivor of child abuse. She has written: “When I believe my life has meaning, believe it enough that I write down life experiences and my analyses of them, I resist oppression. Each piece of writing, whether analytical essay, poem, or fiction, contradicts lies about working-class people of color: we can’t think critically, we’re too enmeshed in life’s dreary necessities to create art, our mundane lives can’t possibly generate interesting material. My writing results from this desire to resist; it stems from deep feelings of love and caring — for people in my communities, for dogged survivors who refuse to succumb to forces wearing them down day after day, for the ones who’ve generated beauty in spite of incredible hardship, for the wise, articulate, sweet people I grew up with who disappeared quietly into the night because they were too yellow and too poor.” She performs regularly as a drummer and has studied Arabic, West African, and Afro-Cuban drumming. Our review of Food for our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists, edited by Jonanna Kadi, can be found here.
Ann-Marie MacDonald (1958-) was born on a military base in Baden-Baden, Germany. She is of Lebanese and Scottish Canadian descent. Before Fall on Your Knees, her 1996 bestseller (reviewed here), she was best known as a dramatist. In 1988, her play Good Night Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) received several awards in her native Canada and has since been produced over forty times. She is the author of another novel, As the Crow Flies (2003), two musical texts, and four other plays including Where the Spirit Lives (1989), The Arab’s Mouth (1990), The Opera, the Pearls, and Three Fine Girls (1995), and Belle Moral (2004). She is married to the playwright-director Alisa Palmer. Our review of Fall on Your Knees can be found here.
Emile Habiby (1921-1996) was a Palestinian writer, activist, and member of the Knesset (1951-1959 and 1961-1972). He once stood between an olive tree and an Israeli bulldozer, but was as critical of Arab politics as he was of Israeli separatism in Palestine. He was a member of the Palestinian Communist Party for most of his life, leaving when Mikhail Gorbachev was deposed in 1991. Our review of The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist and Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter: A Palestinian Fairy Tale can be found here.
East Meets West: Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales by Elizabeth Hopkinson
In recent months, the hearts of many people around the world have turned to Japan, in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, and the crisis at the Fukushima power plant. My own heart, however, has already been in Japan for many years. Like many in our time, I have embraced the manga/anime culture. And, in researching my own novel, I have become deeply interested in Japanese history. In 2009, my brother’s girlfriend (of Japanese-English heritage) leant me the Tuttle Classics edition of Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales. As a passionate reader of fairy tales as well as a Japanophile, I loved it instantly. Even after over a century since its first publication, the stories remain well-told and the collection varied. With something there for everyone, I found many motifs and themes that touched me on a personal level. But I also became interested in the author — herself born of a Japanese father and an English mother — and in her reasons for retelling these stories. So in this article I intend to examine both the stories and the author, looking both at what they have to offer a 21st-century reader and how they reflect the original social context and aims of Yei Theodora Ozaki.
The Japanese Fairy Book first appeared in 1903. The edition used by Tuttle Press and Project Gutenberg (Japanese Fairy Tales, to which I shall refer throughout) is dedicated Tokio (sic) 1908. It is a varied collection of traditional Japanese stories, retold for, “young readers of the West,” comprising legends of old Japanese heroes and heroines, animal fables, supernatural stories, folk tales and stories with religious meaning. They range from the very familiar (in Japan), such as, “Momotaro, or the Story of the Son of a Peach,” to the less well-known, “The Stones of Five Colours and the Empress Jokwa.” We are told that, “Ozaki unabashedly re-crafted some of the stories, translating loosely and adding in elements of unrelated tales, in order to make them more enjoyable and understandable for Western children,” and the author admits as much herself: “These stories are not literal translations, and though the Japanese story and all quaint Japanese expressions have been faithfully preserved, they have been told more with a view to interest young readers of the West than the technical student of folk-lore.” So this is far from being a scholarly collection; rather a creative work written from a love of Japan and its heritage of story, aimed at eager young minds, for whom Japan was a distant, alien and possibly unknown culture.
Yei Theodora Ozaki was born the daughter of Baron Saburu Ozaki and Miss Sabbathia Catherine Morrison. Her father had studied in England under Miss Morrison’s father, William: one of the first generation of well-born Japanese men to do so. Sadly, the marriage ended after just five years, and young O-Yei lived first with her mother in England, and from the age of 16 with her father in Japan. On her arrival, the Baron was said to have been pleased to note that she looked very much the Japanese young lady, and insisted that she become solely Japanese. It seems that O-Yei was happy to do this (perhaps with the enthusiasm of a young girl discovering the missing half of her heritage). The more picturesque aspects of Japanese life appealed strongly to her artistic nature, and having inherited a love of reading from her English grandfather, she now fell completely in love with the heroic tales of old Japan. However, she remained bi-cultural in many respects. She was said to be able to see the good and bad in both the Eastern and Western ways of life, and formed friendships both with distinguished foreign visitors and Japanese men and women of her own class.
But it was her friendship with Mrs Hugh Fraser, wife of the British minister in Tokyo that led to her writing career. Having become independent of her father (partly due to her refusal to marry) she became friends with the Frasers and travelled with them to Europe, notably Italy, where she also became friends with Mrs Fraser’s brother, Marion Crawford. It was he who first suggested that she write down her versions of the old Japanese stories, having enjoyed her storytelling within his family circle. Publication in English magazines, both while in Europe and when she returned to Japan, led to the appearance of the Japanese Fairy Book in 1903. This was her most popular work, and the one that continues to be published today. Along with the charming illustrations by Kakuzo Fujiyama, the 22 stories contained within it create an enjoyable and easy reading experience, and provide a gentle introduction to Japanese culture.
One delightful feature of Ms Ozaki’s storytelling is her subtle marriage of east and west. For her young readers’ benefit, she refers to samurai as “knights” and daimyo as “earls” for example, but also mirrors Japanese patterns of speech with dialogue such as:
“I am Ryn Jin, the Dragon King of the Sea and this is my wife. Condescend to remember me forever!”
“Are you indeed Ryn Jin, the King of the Sea, of whom I have so often heard…? I must apologise to you for all the trouble I am giving you by my unexpected visit.”
Such linguistic features serve to blur the differences between Japanese and English cultures and make the one seem more familiar and accessible to the other. This is deliberate, and not just from a stylistic viewpoint. Ms Ozaki’s biographer Mrs Fraser tells us that one of O-Yei’s motivations for writing was to dispel misconceptions of Japan that she found in the West, and to show the “good old ideals and sentiments” of Japanese culture portrayed in the old stories. We are told that one of O-Yei’s particular concerns was the perception of Japanese women in the West. She wanted to put an end to the notion of the Japanese woman as an oppressed, passive Madame Butterfly figure. Mrs Fraser records her as saying: “When I was last in England and Europe… very mistaken notions about Japan and especially about its women existed generally. I determined if possible to write so as to dispel these wrong conceptions.” In this way, she was very much a woman of her time. The Meiji Period (1868-1912) was a time of great social and political change in Japan, as the country was keen to show itself as equal to the Western powers. Women led the way in this as much as men; and O-Yei herself belonged to several educational, charitable and patriotic ladies’ societies. At the same time, things were changing for women in England too. The suffragettes were to riot in 1911 and the Women’s Institute was to be founded in 1915. As a well-connected, bi-cultural woman, Yei Theodora Ozaki stood in a good position to address these contemporary issues, at the same time as she looked back to the past for inspiration.
How does all this show itself in the tales themselves? Two of my personal favourites are, “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child,” and, “The Mirror of Matsuyama.” Both these tales centre round female characters and deal with largely feminine themes. They also show beautifully Ms Ozaki’s skill in fleshing out the old stories and bringing the characters and their emotions to life, and in incorporating details of Japanese culture and ideals into the text. In looking at them in more detail, I hope to show both how these stories reflect O-Yei’s context and aims, and what appeal they have for me as a 21st-century reader.
The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child
“The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child” is a story I was already familiar with before I came to this collection. According to the original preface, it is “taken from the classic “Taketori Monagatari” and is not classed by the Japanese among their fairy tales, though it really belongs to this class of literature.” It tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a child in a stem of bamboo. She grows into a woman of unearthly beauty, named in this version Princess Moonlight. Five suitors seek her hand, only to be sent on impossible errands, in which they fail. Finally the Emperor falls in love with her, only to be told she has really come from the moon and must return. Her parents and the Emperor try to prevent her departure, to no avail. On leaving, she gives the Emperor a phial of the elixir of life, which he subsequently has sent to Mount Fuji: its vapours are the cause of the mountain’s constant smoke.
This is one of the longer stories in the collection, and a real showcase for Ms Ozaki’s storytelling talents. The adventures of the suitors are described in charming detail, right down to the amusing disillusionment of the fourth man:
“He thought it was quite probable she had wished to kill him, so that she might be rid of him, and in order to carry out her wish had sent him on this improbable quest.”
The tender relationship between Princess Moonlight and the Emperor is also extremely touching in its portrayal:
“…though she refused to see him again she answered with many verses of her own composing, which told him gently and kindly that she could never marry anyone on this earth. These little songs always gave him pleasure.”
It is impossible not to read something of O-Yei’s own life into this retelling. Like Princess Moonlight, she had resisted her father’s attempt to arrange a marriage for her, having been adversely affected by her parents’ separation. When she did finally marry, as a mature woman, it was to a man of her own choosing: Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki (no relation) who she had got to know due to mix-ups over their mail. Princess Moonlight’s polite but assertive way of keeping her suitors at bay could be seen as reflecting the author’s own sentiments. The motif of a princess torn between two cultures (those of the earth and the moon) must also have appealed to an author who had been forced to choose between the lands of her father and her mother.
Princess Moonlight is a strong character. She is respectful of her adopted parents (showing that all-important Japanese trait of filial piety) but this does not stop her politely refusing both her father’s wishes and an Imperial command. Even when the moon messengers come to collect her, she keeps them waiting so she can write a farewell letter to the Emperor. And though we are told she suffers, “a spirit of deepest dejection, ending always in a burst of tears,” when she realises she must return to the moon, in the end it is she who remains calm and collected while the men around her are arguing and sorrowing.
This very much fits with O-Yei’s mission to show Japanese women in a positive light. As to her role as an educator to her young Western readers, the tale comes with subtle little insights into Japanese culture (interesting to readers today as in 1908). For example, we read of the arrival of a celebrated name-giver to bestow Princess Moonlight’s name and the attendant three-day festivities, and of the suitors with “rosaries in hand… before their household shrines… praying to Buddha.”
But Princess Moonlight’s story is also one of heart-rending tragedy; and O-Yei’s style brings out the pathos of her predicament in full force. Her loving parents are unable to keep her at home. The Emperor’s tender love is doomed to remain unrequited. And in the penultimate paragraph, “they all gazed with tearful eyes at the receding princess.” This, for me, is one of the story’s main attractions. It is a tale that stimulates the emotions, allowing the reader to empathise with the characters and be touched by the bittersweet image of a moon princess in a robe of feathered wings receding forever into the clouds.
In its bittersweet ending, the tale contrasts strongly with the traditional Western notion of a fairy tale, in which the ending is expected to be happy. In most familiar Western tales, progressive suits usually lead to favour for the final challenger; and the life-renewing elixir gained at the end of the story is not generally sacrificed to a mountain. This lack of a comfortable ending is partly what helps to make the tale attractive to a modern reader, who is perhaps disillusioned with a “fairytale ending”. And yet the presence of familiar motifs (the tiny child found in a plant, the impossible quest, the elixir of life) show “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child” to share much in common with the tales of other cultures. Again, its cross-cultural potential is another one of the tale’s strengths. It has wide appeal and is open to new reinterpretations. For creators of anime and manga, it has been used to inspire a number of fantasy and science fictional creations, bringing the old story alive in new ways for succeeding generations.
The Mirror of Matsuyama
“The Mirror of Matsuyama,” by contrast, is a more overtly Japanese tale. In fact, it is subtitled, “A Story of Old Japan,” and Ms Ozaki makes full use of it to instruct her young readers in the history and culture of her country. It tells of a husband who brings his wife a mirror after a trip to Kyoto. On the wife’s untimely death, the mirror passes to the daughter, who is told she only need look in it to meet with her departed mother’s soul. On seeing her own reflection — which resembles her mother’s — she believes that she is indeed seeing her mother. This leads to trouble with her new stepmother, who is suspicious of the time the daughter spends in her room and accuses her of witchcraft. But when her father uncovers the truth, he praises his daughter for her filial piety and innocent heart, which has made her like her mother indeed. The discovery wins over the stepmother, who begs forgiveness, and the family live happily together.
Blended into the story, as O-Yei tells it, are many interesting little gems of information about Japanese life and culture in former times. For example, the story begins with a detailed description of the girl’s growing-up: “the visit to the temple when she was just thirty days old… her first dolls festival… her third birthday, when her first obi… was tied round her small waist.” We read of the mother spinning and weaving to make winter clothes; the father walking every weary step of the way from Matsuyama to Kyoto and back, under his “large umbrella hat”. These details give us a fascinating glimpse into a lost world. But it is the story itself that I personally find so touching.
In some ways, it is a Cinderella story. A girl loses her mother and is mistreated by her stepmother, overcoming her problems by means of a magical object that connects her to the dead mother (as in some versions Cinderella goes to the tree on her dead mother’s grave). Only in this story, the object is not actually magical at all. It is just an ordinary mirror, which the sheltered rural girl thinks is magical. “Never had she seen such a thing in her life for she had been born and bred in the rural province of Echigo.” Plus, there is a merciful end for the stepmother; there are no rolling heads or dances in red-hot shoes here. The girl’s virtue leads to a re-birth of the family unit: not an ending one gets in all the stories of this collection (as we have already seen).
The heart of the story is the part in which the girl looks in the mirror and:
“Behold, her mother’s words were true! In the round mirror before her she saw her mother’s face: but, oh, the joyful surprise! It was not her mother thin and wasted by illness, but the young and beautiful woman as she remembered her far back in the days of her own earliest childhood.”
And again when her father tells her:
“Living in constant remembrance of your lost mother has helped you grow like her in character.”
This is a familiar motif, used for example in Disney’s The Lion King when Simba sees in his own reflection the image of his dead father, and one of great spiritual comfort to all who have lost a loved one. It is what makes this story one of my personal favourites.
But what of the lead character? By contrast with Princess Moonlight, some modern readers may find the heroine of this tale insipid and too good to be true. Although she does have an argument with her father in which she says, “…some evil spirit has taken possession of your heart,” she is constantly loving, does nothing to stand up to the stepmother, and “never bore a moment’s resentment or malice towards her afterwards.” Moreover, she is ignorant enough not to recognise her own reflection or understand how a mirror works: something which her own father at first finds “stupid.”
At first glance, this seems to undermine O-Yei’s mission to dispel unhelpful conceptions of Japanese women. Uneducated, unquestioningly obedient, suffering in silence: the girl seems very much the stereotypical Japanese woman of Western imagination. But there are a few important points to note. For one thing, Ms Ozaki is keen to point out the differences between her own time, “In these days of railways and jinrickshas and other rapid modes of travelling,” and the time of the story, when an isolated rural community would have little chance of sharing in the fashions and technology of the capital. A subtle message here is that Japan has changed. For another thing, it is worth mentioning that the father is very kind and tolerant towards the women in his life. The scenes before the mother’s death paint a delightful picture of family life, and he deals with his second wife’s accusations with patience, ultimately being “greatly relieved to see the terrible misunderstanding wiped out of remembrance.” This picture of mutual support must surely have been in contrast with the false ideas of Japanese family life that some of O-Yei’s European friends had, and goes a long way towards promoting Japan in a positive light.
It is also worth dwelling on the symbolism of the mirror. Early in the story, the husband tells his wife: “As the sword is the soul of a samurai, so is the mirror the soul of a woman… if she keeps it bright and clear, so is her heart pure and good.” This notion of keeping a pure, clear mirror/heart comes from Shrine Shinto. James W Boyd and Tetsuya Nishimura in their essay on Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away tell us:
“…to experience the kami presence… requires an aesthetically pure and cheerful heart/mind (kokoro)… Like a mirror clouded with dust, the disposition of our personality, i.e. our kokoro, becomes clouded and opaque… Hence we need to… cleanse our attitudes and cultivate a sound, pure and bright heart/mind, in order to act with genuine sincerity (makoto) towards others and the world.”
This cultivating of the kokoro is precisely what the heroine of the story does, and she is rewarded for it. The “good old ideals and sentiments of old Japan” lead to forgiveness and happiness. This makes them just as efficacious as those of the West, in O-Yei’s persuasive storytelling. In this light, that fact that this Cinderella story does not end in marriage should not be seen as a sign of stunted development on the part of its heroine. This is not first and foremost a story of personal growth. It is a celebration of Japanese filial piety and makoto. This, I believe, is Ms Ozaki’s educational point for her 1908 readers. And the fact that it shares with Spirited Away a common theme of cultivating a pure and cheerful heart under adversity gives it an added layer of interest to the modern reader.
Yei Theodora Ozaki’s world of Meiji-era Japan and Edwardian England is now long gone. Much has changed, and a Western perception of Japan now has as much to do with high technology and cult animation as with cherry blossoms and samurai honour. The “modern woman” of 1908 now seems old-fashioned by 21st-century standards. O-Yei’s context and aims for her storytelling are no longer of immediate relevance to the contemporary reader.
Yet, for all that, the tales still present the reader with a remarkably fresh world. For the child (or child at heart) of the West, most of these stories are as unfamiliar now as they were in the 1900s. The insights into traditional Japanese culture and speech patterns remain fascinating. And the stories and illustrations of Japanese Fairy Tales still leap off the page with as much life, charm and emotion as they had for their first readers: a testament to a truly talented storyteller.
And in our own multicultural era, it is both insightful and encouraging to hear from a woman writer of what must have been an unusually mixed heritage for her time. Roy Stafford quoting Susan Napier suggests that in our day, anime “might offer a new kind of global hybridity for the techno-generation”. By re-writing Japanese tales for the West, Yei Theodora Ozaki was beginning that hybridity right at the birth of the anime age. The fact that the tales she chose to retell still influence and share themes with anime show both their continued importance to present-day Japan and their global appeal. In my opinion, this collection is an essential on any fairy tale lover’s bookshelf. It connects us both to the past and to the future.
1] Preface to Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (New York, 1908) Charles Franks, Greg Weeks, Project Gutenberg Etext (gutenberg.net, 2003) p.7
2] Zack Davision “Japanreviewed”, Amazon.com
3] Preface to Japanese Fairy Tales p.7
4] Her biographer and friend Mrs Fraser refers to her either as O-Yei (O- is an honorific) or Madame Ozaki
5] Japanese Fairy Tales p.66
6] Madame Yukio Ozaki: A Biographical Sketch by Mrs Hugh Fraser (pod cast on kungfuactiontheatre.com)
8] Preface to Japanese Fairy Tales p.8
9] “The Bamboo Cutter and the Moon Child,” Japanese Fairy Tales p.48
10] Ibid. p.48
11] Ibid. p.48
12] Ibid. p.44
13] Ibid. p.50
14] For example, Sailor Moon (manga/anime), InuYasha (manga/anime) and Kaguyahime (manga)
15] “The Mirror of Matsuyama,” Japanese Fairy Tales pp. 50-51
16] Ibid. p.52
17] Ibid. p.52
18] Ibid. p.54
19] Ibid. p.57
20] Ibid. p.57
21] Ibid. p.57
22] Ibid. p.51
23] Ibid. p.57
24] Ibid. p.52
25] “Shinto Perspectives in Miyazaki’s Anime Film Spirited Away”, The Journal of Religion and Film, www.unomaha.edu
26] Roy Stafford, “Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and anime,” Film Extra Day Course handout, National Media Museum, Bradford, 2006
27]1917 is often cited as the date of the first Japanese animation
Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (New York, 1908) Charles Franks, Greg Weeks, Project Gutenberg Etext (gutenberg.net 2003)
Yei Theodora Ozaki, Japanese Fairy Tales (Tokyo, Rutland Vermont, Singapore: Tuttle Classics, 2007)
Elizabeth Hopkinson has had over 30 stories published in magazines, webzines and anthologies, won prizes in 3 competitions, and her first novel Silver Hands is currently being considered by agents.
When Rumplestiltskin offers to spin straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, he reveals himself as an initiate of one of the oldest arts of humankind. Spinning has been practiced at least since the dawn of civilization, one of the first ways in which human beings learned to take disorganized, chaotic raw materials from nature and bring them into order through rhythmic activity, creating rope, yarn, or thread.
Plant and animal fibers were first twisted slowly and painstakingly by hand, and then a weight such as a flat stone was added to help speed up the spinning through gravity. Adding a shaft provided an easier way to balance and spin the weight, and a place to wind the strand.(1) With one simple tool came a major step from passive dependence on the given toward creative solutions to problems of survival, of shelter and protection from the elements — and also a source of beauty and artistry.
So valued was this activity that in fairy tales, the industrious spinner reaps a golden reward, while the one who is too slothful to complete her task is punished with a hideous fate. In the Grimms’ “Mother Holle,” for example, the good sister works so hard that her spindle is stained with blood. When she goes to the well to wash it out, she falls in and comes to a strange country. An apple tree asks her to help shake down its ripe apples; a bread oven asks her to take out the bread before it burns. She helps everyone who asks, and comes at last to the house of an old woman, Mother Holle, who takes her in if she will help with the chores. Mother Holle is so pleased with the girl’s work that when she asks to go home, a rain of gold falls upon her as she passes through the threshold to the ordinary world again.
Her sister wants the same good fortune, so she goes to the well. Too lazy to actually work, she pricks her fingers with thorns to make the reel bloody, then throws it in the well and jumps in after it. Of course she does not help the tree or the oven, and though at first she makes an effort at working for Mother Holle, she quickly tires of it and doesn’t bother any more. Mother Holle dismisses her, but instead of gold she is showered with pitch as she steps through the gate, “and the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.”(2)
There is more here than a cautionary tale intended to frighten girls into fulfilling their societal roles. As Jacob Grimm himself described in his Teutonic Mythology, Mother Holle is a manifestation of a Germanic nature-goddess. She tells the girls, “You must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world.” Tumbling into the well is a way of entering the world behind nature, the world of the elemental forces that cause snow and rain, growth and fertility. It is a realm where, as in natural cycles, everything has its rightful time to happen (as with the apples and the bread).
When the good sister recognizes and participates in this creative activity, she shows that she is worthy to receive the golden mantle of the spirit. Her diligence at spinning has been an outer sign of an inner quality, her ability to see and to participate in creative divine forces. When the lazy sister is covered in black pitch, it is not so much a punishment as an outward sign of what has been there all along: her blindness to and lack of reverence for the very forces that sustain her life.
The goddess Holle/Hulda is also the patron of spinners, demonstrating the intimate connection between this seemingly mundane activity and a higher realm. In fact, from the beginning people saw a divine quality in spinning. The circular motion of the heavens was equated with the turning of a spindle, with the shaft as the “axis mundi” connecting heaven and earth.(3) Life itself was spun by the gods: the Fates of Greek mythology determined the length and quality of each individual’s destiny as they spun, measured and cut the thread of life. The Norns of the Norsemen were seen as even having control over the threads of the gods themselves.
How did this mighty, divine activity come into the hands of a grotesque trickster figure like Rumplestiltskin, whose creative power is perverted into the wish to steal a child? As usual in fairy tales, the very first lines give us the “diagnosis” of the problem:(4)
There was once upon a time a poor miller who had a very beautiful daughter.
The mill, like the spindle, is a wheel that resonates with the cosmic motion of the heavens. But rather than a simple tool for bringing order into chaos, it is a huge machine that crushes and pulverizes the living grain into a useless powder, rendering the miller poor indeed. A further step is needed to return the grain to life again: the miller has a daughter, full of potential for the future. But before she can fulfill her task, another impulse comes in.
Now it happened one day that he had an audience with the King, and in order to appear a person of some importance he told him that he had a daughter who could spin straw into gold.
Gold here is the cold, lifeless metal that can neither feed nor clothe anyone, and merely serves as the focus of human greed and selfish ambition. The miller’s mechanical expertise has led him to seek mechanical solutions to his problems, and come up with wild schemes for exploiting nature. Rather than taking the responsibility for his actions himself, he puts them off onto the next generation, letting them deal with the consequences.
This is the context in which Rumplestiltskin appears: a personification of the moral poverty of the miller, the insatiable greed of the king, and the stifled potential of the daughter. Faced with an impossible task, unable to confess her inadequacy, the girl enters into a bargain with a subhuman creature.
Unknown to the king or the miller — that is, below the threshold of consciousness — he allows him to spin the straw into gold and presents it as her own work. In herself, she has the capacity for transformation, but her fears have led her to deny that power and attribute it to another. The end of this path can only be sterility and barrenness: so, quite logically, Rumplestiltskin claims her child. His shocking act is a wake-up call that serves to remind us of what is truly important:
The Queen was in a great state, and offered the little man all the riches in her kingdom if he would only leave her the child. But the manikin said: “No, a living creature is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world.”
How can the girl, now a queen, reclaim her life-giving power of transformation? The way is through language, through naming. She must name the unknown and feared element in her life, must know it intimately, in order to overcome it.
It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to “spin” a tale or tell a “yarn.” Spinning brings a cosmic “twist” into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.
As anyone who has tried it knows, spinning is not a mindless task. It requires constant attention not to end up with a tangled mess or a broken thread. At the same time, the rhythmical balance of manual and mental activity, hand and mind working together to produce a continuous, even thread, is deeply satisfying and calming. The spinner often finds her thoughts becoming organized along with the fiber, leading to new insights or creative inspiration. An inner “golden thread” can be sensed, one that we can try to cultivate ever more strongly.
This is the thread that we can try to make of our lives, when we accept the materials we are given; on the other hand, we reject them at our peril. In “Sleeping Beauty,” for example, the king tries to avert the prediction that his daughter will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a deathlike sleep by burning all the spinning wheels in the kingdom. He thus brings about the very fate he seeks to escape, when the princess’s curiosity leads her to touch the first spindle she sees.(5) Destiny cannot be averted through ignorance, but only transformed through knowledge.
In “Rumplestiltskin,” it is significant that the queen’s finds the knowledge she seeks only when she finally enlists the help of another person — not her father or her husband, who have failed to reach beyond their own narrow interests, but a “messenger,” one who travels far and wide to bring people together through words. From her denial of her own capacities at the beginning of the story, she has grown into the ability to spin threads of connection into the world. And thus she is finally able to overcome her fear by knowing it, naming it.
The name “Rumplestiltskin” seems comically ridiculous for a creature who has had such a devastating impact; it may come from a German word for a spirit who rattles sticks or wooden posts (literally, “little rattle stilt”), a goblin related to the poltergeist.(6) Perhaps in naming him thus the queen realizes how absurd it is to imagine that any power could truly break the bond between a mother and her child; the demon who has been threatening her can actually do nothing more than rattle harmlessly in a cupboard, compared with the motherly power to create and sustain new life. Freed from her demonic counterpart (who self-destructs when he is recognized) she can at last start to spin her own story, a fitting end to this strange and compelling tale.
(1) This tool, the handspindle, has been in use for over ten thousand years, and is still widely used today. The spinning wheel is only a few hundred years old. The many tales that feature spinning undoubtedly come from origins far earlier than their written incarnations, and would originally have referred to the older tool. This makes sense of a “Rumplestiltskin” variant in which the girl is spinning on the roof (easy with the highly portable handspindle).
(2) An interesting comparison of the 1812 and 1857 versions of “Mother Holle” can be found at http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm024a.html. The 1857 version is the one that has been referred to here.
(3) This image is remarkably universal. In The Republic, Plato beautifully describes the “spindle of necessity,” suspended from a rainbow-colored shaft of light, with an eightfold whorl of stars and planets, all singing in eternal harmonies, while the Kogi people of Colombia conceived of the earth as a central disk on a spindle shaft, with four heavenly disks and four underworld disks.
(4) Gertrud Muller Nelson makes this observation in Here All Dwell Free (Paulist Press, 1999), p. 31.
(5) This tale may also have originally referred to a handspindle, or to the older type of hand-turned spinning wheel. Modern treadled spinning wheels seldom have sharp parts.
(6) See the annotated version of “Rumplestiltskin” on SurLaLunefairytales.com. The quotations from the story are also taken from this site.
Lory Widmer Hess was born in Hawaii, grew up in Washington state, attended college in Minnesota, and now lives in New York, where her eastward progress seems to have halted for the moment. Her essays and reviews have been published in Parabola, Interweave Knits, LILIPOH, Green Man Review, and Enchanted Conversation. She serves as Managing Editor for the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, but her most important job is telling stories to her five-year-old son.
ReviewsComments Off on Toads and Diamonds – review
Toads and Diamonds
by Heather Tomlinson
Henry Holt and Co., 2010
Reviewed by Valentina Cano
I couldn’t put this book down. My fingers turned page after page as if enchanted by the same goddess that intervenes in the two heroines’ lives.
This book is a retelling of the fairy tale about two sisters who get singled out by a powerful being who grants one the blessing of speaking flowers and diamonds whenever she utters a word, while the other sister must deal with toads and snakes punctuating each sentence. The retelling takes place in a small village which the author describes in lush detail. The two sisters start off a bit one-dimensional, but, as the story progresses, they acquire edges to match Diribani’s many jewels.
Something else that truly drew me in was the mention of snakes every few pages. I am an avid snake lover, so to have an author describe them as sympathetically as Tomlinson does, made me very happy indeed. I love the twists to the story that she adds (which I will not reveal), the little tweaks to the fairytale that make the possibility of speaking toads and diamonds not so far-fetched.
The aura of magic is woven into every line in this novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever wondered “what if…?”
ReviewsComments Off on Russian Fairy Tales – review
Russian Fairy Tales
(Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)
compiled by Alexander Afanasyev, Norbert Guterman (Translator), Alexander Alexeieff
Reviewed by Valentina Cano
This is a wonderful collection, one that is akin to the classic Grimm books, full of lush, fantastical stories, set against the harsh background that is icy Russia.
It is full of all the wonderful characters we have grown to love, the many peasant children who are just a bit smarter than the villains, the magical creatures that bring awe to our senses (such as the startling Firebird), and of course, the wicked, cunning, and absolutely terrifying Baba Yaga. There is a darkness to these stories that causes the skin to chill as the reader explores them. The evil is made even more so by the mixture of comedy and tension, the sparkling dialogue brought out in stronger relief against the dramatic storylines that enfold them. The endings of some of the stories are little masterpieces themselves — witty little sentences that made me laugh out loud at their randomness and freshness. I can’t help but think that they were meant to lighten the mood, especially if the stories were read to children at bedtime.
This is one book that needs to be part of any fairy tale lover’s library; place it right next to the Grimm’s books and it’ll be in very good company.
StorytellersComments Off on The Gates of Bordertown Have Opened
For thirteen years, the gates of Bordertown have remained closed, its denizens living on only in the memories of readers, both newcomers and old-timers alike, and the vast assortment of fan groups and websites and more. Now, with the publication of Welcome to Bordertown, those gates have once again been opened. Like any gate to faerie, the passage through is fraught with danger and excitement. Danger in that as you turn the pages, time will pass strangely and you’ll return to the life you once knew somehow changed. Excitement in that Welcome to Bordertown brings together authors from the original series as well as new voices to share their experience of this most beloved place between worlds. And one of those original authors, Ellen Kushner, has joined forces with Holly Black as co-editor of the latest collection of stories and poems to guide us through this haven for outcasts and outsiders, for lovers of all things faerie, and for those of us who live in a Bordertown of our own.
Humans are social creatures, and yet so many of us feel as though no matter what we do we will never, ever belong to the human world. This is no doubt one of the reasons the Borderland series struck such a chord when the first title appeared in 1986.
Back then I was a very young mother. The year before I’d had my first daughter (just after I’d turned eighteen), and in August of ’86 my second daughter arrived. Raising a a child (or two) when the rest of the world is still treating you like one is a very alienating experience, but it was by no means the only thing that made me feel like an outsider all of those years ago. I was too busy keeping my own elfin tribe out of trouble to have much time for reading when Borderland first appeared, but when I discovered Life on the Border (1991) a few years later, I realized I was not alone. This was a revelation, for despite Life on the Border and the rest of the Borderland series being labeled as fiction, it is in such fiction that meaningful truths can be found. You see, Bordertown opens its gates to anyone, even young mothers with nowhere else to go. It gives everyone a place to belong.
Emma Bull and Will Shetterly are joined in Welcome to Bordertown by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling, Cory Doctorow (whose story “Shannon’s Law” is available to read on the Tor website here and as a podcast here), Patricia A. McKillip, Catherynne M. Valente, Amal El-Mohtar, Steven Brust, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jane Yolen, Janni Lee Simner, Sara Ryan (whose story has been gloriously drawn by Dylan Meconis) , Tim Pratt, Annette Curtis Klause, Nalo Hopkinson, Delia Sherman, Christopher Barzak, Holly Black and Cassandra Clare, Neil Gamain, and Charles de Lint: all names you should recognize and whose work is eternally suffused with faerie. We also get two introductions: one by Holly Black and one by Terri Windling, who lead us gracefully across the Border and away. There’s even a “Letter from the Diggers”!
We at Cabinet des Fées are very privileged to be able to offer two more of the works inside Welcome to Bordertown. Here is one of them:
by Delia Sherman
All mortals see the Border differently.
I go to Danceland, Café Cubana, The Dancing Ferret
With my notebook, my pen, my most interested smile.
These are their answers:
A stone wall with broken pixies on top
A wave of dark water, never-breaking
Blood-edged shards of glass
Apple blossoms and silver trout
A row of grim warriors, carved in onyx
Bones and stones and baby teeth
A sleeping dragon, infinitely long
I believe them all.
Believing is what I do.
I’ve asked elves, too,
In Trader’s Heaven, Elftown, Gryphon Park.
These are their answers:
The polite ones say:
“We do not speak of that.”
The rough ones say:
“Mortal bones and skulls. You want to contribute?”
I record them all.
Recording is what I do.
I gather them and study them,
Poetry and fact
From runaways and questers
From artists and their muses
The enchanted and the cynics
The natives and the neighbors.
I make graphs, note patterns.
I formulate theories.
Here is one:
The lives of elves are long.
They are easily bored.
They eat dreams for breakfast,
Are empty again by lunch.
Here is another:
Mortal dreams are like snowflakes,
No two alike:
Each reflects the soul that dreams it
Like a mirror in a fun house.
And a third, to make up the spell:
Mortals need mysteries.
They may not like them, but they need them
As vampires need blood,
As elves need mortals.
Readers take note: this poem is indicative of all of the work inside this collection. It will reveal and conceal the faerie we wish we knew, and it will lead us to and away from the faerie that is. Here is another:
by Patricia A. McKillip
Two daughters had the butcher’s wife,
Alike as day and night,
Alike as dross and gold, the two,
As moon shadow and light.
As tots one pinched and bit and tore,
Laughed at the other’s cries.
She smacked her sister with her dolls,
Pulled off their staring eyes.
One sister fled her mother’s arms,
Chortled at her chiding,
Would not sit still for song or tale,
And mocked her mother’s guiding.
The other learned to sew and weed,
To count and read a book,
She weighed chops in the butcher’s shop,
And helped her mother cook.
The one grew willow-tall and pale,
Green eyes like leaves in frost,
Hair of milk and moonlight mixed,
Bright smile freely tossed.
The other was of earth and mold,
Fox teeth and foxfire hair,
Eyes shy and wide like wild things
Warned early to beware.
The one loved night and air that smelled
Of wine and sweat and smoke.
She danced and drank the night away,
Crept to bed as others woke.
The other craved the sun and earth,
Dug and hoed and planted,
Buried with each seed the thought
Her sister was enchanted.
One said yes to all the men
And no to all their hope.
She let them love, then laughed at them,
Let them curse and mope.
The other loved but one kind man,
True in word and kiss.
Her sister teased and laughed and flaunted
The beauty he would miss.
He did not see the one for love
Ablaze in the other’s heart.
She took his hand, he sang with her,
They knew they’d never part.
Her father smiled at their news,
Invited all the town,
Her mother cried and stitched her tears
Like pearls in the wedding gown.
But on their day she found her veil
Torn from hem to crown,
Her shoes dirt-filled, her flowers tossed,
Her cake thrown upside down.
“Beautiful sister, cruel sister,
Why must you torment me?
You have all I have and more.
Why can’t you let me be?”
From her sister’s eye there came a tear,
The first that ever fell,
Hard and cold as diamond
Forged in a special hell.
“No sister of mine are you,” she said.
“No mother did we share.
Mine brought me here and took my heart,
Then left without a care.
“You are human, these paths are yours
That map the human heart.
The stony streets I walk lead back
To the hollow where they start.”
“Then, sister mine,” the other said,
“My elfin rose and thorn,
You must leave and follow moonlight’s path
To find where you were born.”
The one touched her and held her fast
For a breath, another tear,
The other still as a wild thing
Encircled by her fear.
Then she was out the door and gone,
The other with love and rue
Smiling in the wreck of her wedding day,
Tipping the earth from her shoe.
Now that we’ve shared these two exemplary poems with you, we’d like to withdraw from the work inside and turn our attention to one of the women responsible for gathering these delights into Welcome to Bordertown. Ellen Kushner has been a mainstay of the Bordertown series since Borderland was published in 1986. First she gave us “Charis”, then, with Bellamy Bach, “Mockery” (in Bordertown, also 1986), then “Lost in the Mall” (a story in parts appearing in Life on the Border, 1991), and finally “Hot Water: A Bordertown Romance” (in The Essential Bordertown, 1998). I asked Ellen how it feels, as one of the original Borderland authors, to have returned as co-editor of Welcome to Bordertown.
Ellen Kushner: I thought being co-editor would be a piece of cake: Y’know, just do what Terri did: ask a bunch of really good writers familiar with Bordertown to write new stories, and stick’em in the book! That’s how it always seemed to work in the past — from the outside (and may I just say here that I’m so glad none of our authors this time was as heart-stoppingly late with their stories as I always used to be?)… Then I discovered just how much work it actually was to answer authors’ questions about the series, and vet their ideas for a sort of emotional accuracy: “Is this really a Bordertown story?” Thank heavens I had Holly at my side — what an amazing reader that girl is! — and, of course, Secret Weapon Terri Windling was waiting in Devon for that day we descended on her en masse with a suitcase full of copyedited mss., and sat ’round a big table together checking all the stories against the original volumes and against each other, making sure the details interwove. I guess you asked how did I feel, and not what did I do — mostly, I felt like Terri had handed me a sacred trust, and I was terribly worried about disappointing her. So I was hugely relieved when she loved the stories as much as we do!
I also asked Ellen to share her own insights as to why this series was and is so beloved by so many readers.
Ellen Kushner: To be honest, I think some of it has to do with the quality of the writing. Seriously: I had warm memories of the series, but hadn’t actually looked inside their covers in a long time. So it was with some trepidation that I opened the old volumes to re-read in preparation for editing the new one (yes, I’m still the world’s biggest procrastinator!), kind of prepared to be gently embarrassed at the excesses of our collective youth — and I was genuinely astonished at just how good those stories were! I don’t think you can discount that as part of the equation. The emotional allure of Bordertown has, I think, been eloquently documented in the ARC contests that Terri ran on the new Bordertown website, and Emma Bull’s on her Livejournal.
We also wrote a video “mockumentary” on why kids run away to Bordertown!
And here it is!
One of my favorite things about Welcome to Bordertown is the dedication one finds inside: “For Terri Windling, who showed us the way to the Border”. Terri Windling created Borderland for teenage readers, but like all things faerie, a reader’s age is a fluid thing and the stories and poems in the series are perfectly timeless. Here I am, in my mid-forties, still finding joy in the shared world Terri ushered into being. Terri has written about the Borderland series here, and about the video “mockumentary” here, and of course we always recommend following Terri’s blog for more information on Bordertown in particular and her creative life in Devon in general.
My own experience of life on the Border as a young mother has somewhat shifted. My daughters have grown, and some of them have had children of their own. That keeps me firmly in the place of being looked at askance when people find out that yes, I am a grandmother — still too young to be taken seriously (no matter how much grey hair I have), and yet still, and always, welcome in Bordertown. And you, no matter how strange you feel in this human world, will certainly be welcome there, too.
Mermaid, which just came out in March, is my third novel and second based on a classic fairy tale. My last book, Godmother, imagined the “real” story of Cinderella’s fairy godmother… It was a tricky book to write, but the moment I put myself in the head of the godmother, and of Cinderella herself, I knew that my own book would take a darker, and to my mind more psychologically accurate, turn. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” on the other hand, is very odd little story, full of suffering and pain and heartbreak already. At first it seemed entirely inaccessible, too weird and sad for a retelling. But then I thought about that mysterious princess who takes up only a few lines in the story but is the one the prince loves and ends up marrying—and in so doing, breaks the mermaid’s heart and causes her to turn to foam—and I thought that there might be something there to explore.
So the book I ended up writing tells the story of this princess. And, since it seemed a shame to tell a mermaid story and not include the mermaid, I told her story, too, alternating between the two tales, and ended up making the book more about the relationship between these two romantic rivals than about anything else… In my version, the women both love the prince but have much more at stake than their own hearts, when it comes down to it. Once the story is set in motion and both women have made their sacrifices, leaving their homes behind to gain the prince’s heart and hand, they both have too much to lose. If the princess doesn’t marry the prince, her kingdom will stay divided and at war. If the mermaid doesn’t, she’ll turn to foam. When they discover each other at the castle, and realize that they have unwittingly become rivals, we know that the story cannot end well.
Original Little Mermaid manuscript at HCA Museum in Odense
For the year or so I spent writing the book, I half-lived in Hans Christian Andersen’s story. I wanted to imagine the princess’s story as fully as possible while remaining true, to whatever extent I could, to the few details about her in the original tale. And with the mermaid, I wanted to stay true to some of the story’s main moments, to give the reader that feeling of recognition and pleasure. I wanted to tell the story as it “really happened,” the idea being that Hans’ version is how it was passed down centuries later. And so I read the story again and again, and I let its world and images populate my own imagination.
Unlike “Cinderella”, which can be traced back to multiple sources and has been retold numerous times and in many classic renditions, “The Little Mermaid” is its own singular creation, and the truth was I wasn’t too familiar with Hans Christian Andersen outside of his few most famous stories. And so once my book was done, I wondered about this man who’d spun such a sad, luminous tale, and to whom I owed so much imaginative space, and such a debt.
So I decided to learn something about him, and to make a pilgrimage of sorts to the country he came from.
I finished the last edits of Mermaid in the spring of 2010. That August I found myself in Berlin, Germany, for some months, so it was easy enough to plan a whirlwind trip to Denmark, especially with the low-budget help of EasyJet and Kayak. In the meantime I picked up two huge biographies of Hans as well as his collected stories at the English bookstore in Prenzlauer Berg.
Drawing of Edvard Collin.
As I read, I was surprised to learn what a strange, eccentric man Hans Christian Andersen really was. And I was surprised to learn the story behind “The Little Mermaid,” which Hans wrote 175 years ago, in 1836, when his friend Edvard Collin was getting married. It turns out that Hans had a mad, unrequited love for his friend, as he did quite often for people, both female (more publicly) and male (more privately), but that his affections weren’t returned with the same ardor. Edvard wouldn’t even agree to address his friend by the familiar “du,” causing Hans endless suffering and leading him to imagine, in a draft of a letter never sent, that their friendship would reach this perfect “du” state after death. Hans, I learned, most likely never had an adult relationship, or sex of any kind, but he was rife with overwhelming passions, all kinds of unrequited love. He was often in a state of heartbreak, and it was in such a state that he retreated to Odense as Edvard was getting married.
Though I learned all kinds of other details about Hans’ very strange, singular, over-the-top life, I couldn’t help but see him, and the places I visited, through the lens of this heartbreak and longing, not to mention an extreme theatricality and love of drama, which I can absolutely appreciate and secretly suspect were in keeping with my own sensibilities…
My visit to Denmark was a quick one, with no time for dawdling. I flew in and out of Copenhagen, stayed at a cheap hotel next to the train station, and spent one evening walking around Copenhagen, another whole day travelling to Odense, and one half day walking around Copenhagen before flying back to Berlin. I’d done a similar thing for Dante in Florence, armed with a sense of what things had been before, exploring the city and determined to kind of see past the modern buildings, cars, streets… and into a past that was in evidence all around you. It’s a strange way to explore the city, squinting, trying to imagine what it was like once, trying to sense the presence of the ghosts and memories that haunt its streets and buildings. And Hans was a restless sort, so he lived in multiple places through the years, which was rather inconsiderate of him and gave me a long list of places to visit.
I also was determined to film everything. And I have to tell you: Danish people think it’s weird when you stand on the street pointing a Flip camera at yourself and speaking in English, and will actually stop and smile at you and occasionally wave. New Yorkers they are not.
HCA statue in park in Odense, Denmark.
So aside from the non-New-York-ness of it all, the first and main thing I noticed about Denmark was the absolute aggressive healthfulness of everyone around me. Those Danes are all super fit, whizzing past you on bikes and gleaming with health and just generally being obnoxious. The second thing I noticed is how much Hans Christian Andersen’s life is woven through Copenhagen and Odense, sometimes garishly, sometimes in just the barest traces. Plaques and street names are all over the place, statues of him gazing out in mournful, lonesome fashion, even as adoring, camera-wielding crowds surround him. The third thing I noticed is that they really, really like 7-11. But I digress.
Another HCA statue in downtown Odense.
From the Copenhagen airport I took the train into the city, and my hotel was just a block away from the main station. I checked in, then walked over to Tivoli Gardens, which was one of Hans’ favorite spots and also conveniently located within a couple blocks of the train station and hotel. Tivoli is the world’s second oldest amusement park (it opened in 1843) and a huge attraction, though you wouldn’t exactly know it on a rainy September weekday afternoon, when it was almost entirely empty. But I tried to imagine how wondrous it would have been in the mid-19th century (not to mention on a lovely summer day now, filled with people), as I walked along its many pathways lined by flowers and fountains and elaborate Oriental-style buildings with giant peacocks and the like flaring out of them. There’s a lake, there are open-air restaurants and cafes, and though the park has evolved in the last 160 years or so it was, from the start, filled with mechanical rides and this lush exoticism that Andersen loved, and that inspired his Nightingale fairytale.
HCA statue outside of City Hall in Copenhagen.
When I was there Tivoli was also serving as temporary home to the replacement little mermaid statue, since the real one had left Copenhagen for the first time and was in Shanghai for Expo 2010 (and received about 5.5 million visitors for the six months or so she was there), which I thought was very rude of it. Of course this statue was installed in Copenhagen in 1913, 38 years after Andersen’s death, but that sad little mermaid is about the most famous destination in all of Scandinavia. Still, the statue that was in Tivoli when I visited was awfully lovely, and attracted many an ill-mannered bird to her head.
Next I visited City Hall, which is right across the street from Tivoli and which features, right on the sidewalk, a huge statue of Hans Christian Andersen.
The statue made me very sad that I wasn’t there with someone so that I could climb in said statue’s lap and pretend to make out with it, or read over its shoulder as I would later do in Central Park, which has its own gloomy statue.
But still it is something, seeing that mournful face staring up at Tivoli, an image of that lonely, sad and wonderful man, who spun such heartbreaking stories, frozen in stone next to the imposing City Hall, which is fronted by fountains and some looking-like-they’re-about-to-launch-themselves-into-the-air gargoyles.
HCA tableaux at the Wonderful World of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen.
For weirdness, though, the Wonderful World of Hans Christian Andersen (http://www.topattractions.dk/) was definitely at the front of the pack. I was expecting a bona fide museum…. and instead found a series of weird tableaux from Hans’ life as well as his stories, which you can have told to you in several languages as you watch scenes from them mechanically acted out. I thought the little mermaid display was especially strange, with its mermaid gazing up longingly at an impossibly phallic, out-of-reach castle with a prince’s head popping out of it.
Little Mermaid tableaux.
There is also a Thumbelina twirling around in a flower, a little match girl freezing on a snowy street, and one very naked emperor, among other disturbing scenes I may have blocked from my memory between then and now.
Slightly traumatized, and with night approaching, I retired elegantly to my room to prepare myself for an early morning train ride to Odense, which is a 90-minute ride away from Copenhagen and the town Hans is from. Plus Odense is located on the poetical-sounding “Fynn Island” and is where Hans retreated to write “The Little Mermaid” when Edvard was getting married, so I was expecting something a bit more magical… not a big shop-filled train station with about 50000000000000000000 bicycles parked in front. Which is what I found there after a lovely night’s sleep and after nearly missing my train by setting a loud alarm on my laptop and then accidentally leaving earphones hooked into it. But once I recovered from my mad dash and the modern world generally, I started walking toward the Hans Christian Andersen museum, which was built around the small house in which he was born, and saw that Odense is really very charming, despite its many mad, murderous bicyclists.
Interactive paper cut-outs display at HCA museum in Odense (where guests can make paper cut-outs the way he did).
So I walked and walked until suddenly I was at the museum, which appeared much earlier than I thought it would according to my map. Now Odense’s Hans Christian Andersen Museum is a real museum, utterly devoted to the man and his life and surprisingly popular, with tourists from all over the world thoughtlessly impeding my ability to photograph the exhibits and film myself talking in front of them. It was there I got a much more intense sense of Hans’ actual life, not only of his personal history and literary output, but the small things that filled his days. There’s a display, for example, of the paper cut-outs he was fond of making—apparently he liked to dazzle people, especially kids, by whipping out scissors and paper and clip clip clipping until a whole little scene appeared as if by magic.
There were several photographs of Hans about, which made me wonder why he was considered so deeply unattractive by his peers. And he was: this is confirmed again and again. Edvard Collin is there, and appeared to me a rather hunky sort, too.
What I most loved at the museum, though, was the basement full of curiosities illustrating how truly weird Hans Christian Andersen really was. For example, he was so afraid of fire that he carried a rope with him everywhere so he could make a quick escape should the need present itself… and there in the museum is the actual rope. You see shaving implements that Hans’ barber used on him… and learn that Hans’ nose was so big and he moved around so much that his barber actually had to hold onto Hans’ nose in order to give him a shave. THIS is the kind of thing one longs to know about one’s literary idols, let’s face it, and I ended up spending hours in the place.
A street in Odense.
Odense is a really lovely little town, I have to say. From the museum you can walk down these cobblestone-y streets lined by quaint old houses with pointed roofs, down to the river that snakes through the town and is lined by trees and grass. I kept imagining a moony Hans hanging out at this river, looking down at his reflection with that sad sad face, imagining a little mermaid longing to be part of the world of humans. I wandered along the river, under a bridge covered with graffiti, and along this pretty pathway that leads to a big statue of Hans right smack in the middle of a park, all green grass and loveliness and picturesque bridges and churches, and he’s standing alone there, ever mournful, so I sat for a long time and took photos and watched joggers and lovers zoom past.
The house HCA grew up in in Odense, Denmark.
And then I wandered around to the house where Hans grew up, which is past the river and the park, and down a street or two… It’s quite a small house set up as if Hans’ family had just left it, with Hans’ cobbler father’s work set out on a table, and pans hanging in the kitchen. Much is made of Hans’ poor, simple upbringing and his longing for the finer things, and I can imagine how much Hans did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps. Actually, the whole set-up made me think of Dolly Parton, whom I love, and who has explained her own over-the-top, theatrical tastes as being a result of her mountain childhood. To me Hans seems just like that, coming from this humble place, moving to the big city and going overboard in his quest for elegance and beauty in a way that might make your bluer blooded folk a bit uneasy.
A walk from the house HCA was born in (now part of the museum) down to the river, in Odense.
After, I went to a quaint café for some coffee, and just wandered around the town until it was time to catch my train back that evening to Copenhagen. I passed the fancy-looking Odense Theater, where a show was about to start and people in fine dress swarmed around out front, just as the sun was setting, and wondered if it was there when Hans was a boy, to help spark his many longings.
I returned to Copenhagen that evening, and the next day, my final day in Denmark, I had until mid-afternoon in Copenhagen to hit the list of other Hans Christian Andersen sites I’d accumulated, including almost all his former residences in that town. The strangest of these is located in Magasin, which is a regular department store, like Saks or Bloomingdale’s, housed in what once was a grand old hotel. Once upon a time, Hans rented two attic rooms in this hotel, and up until recently these rooms were preserved and accessible to visitors from Magasin’s third floor. Sadly, the shop ladies told me that the exhibit had been recently shut down, but I went back and found the remnants of it, right behind the cappuccino makers and fancy knives. I took out my Flip camera and brazenly walked back into the little hallway (still filled with images of Hans) that led to what I presume were those rooms and that now seemed to be filled with artisans of some kind, and I continued to film this weird, incongruous place until a lady came and kicked me out.
I then made my way to the nearby Royal Danish Theater, which Hans desperately wanted to join when he left his humble home and flung himself into glamorous Copenhagen at age 14. There are crazy stories of the precocious boy foisting himself on the theater’s director (who told him to go learn a real trade) and then showing up at the home of the theater’s prima ballerina and astonishing her with a madcap on-the-spot audition that left her equally charmed and horrified.
I tried to find the spot where this ballerina lived and where Hans created such a spectacular scene, but now it’s a street full of shops and I had little luck. And I admired the theater itself, although it’s not the same building Hans frequented (and eventually did end up doing a lot of work for, in a fringe-y kind of way). But I visited Hans former ambitions in spirit, anyway.
Then I headed to famous Nyhavn, a harbor street split by a canal that’s filled with picturesque boats and lined by open-air cafes and bars. Hans lived in three spots on this street: at number 20 he wrote his first fairytales in 1835, at number 67 he lived from 1845 until 1864, and at number 18 he lived from 1873 until his death two years later. These are all just regular residences now, with only small plaques on the facades to tell you who once lived inside.
I wondered if the people inside, who actually live in these old haunts, care about this history, or if they’re just so used to it, and to Hans’ ghostly presence generally, that it seems normal. It’s a beautiful street, though, and I imagined it was when Hans lived there, too.
Finally, I visited the cemetery where Hans is buried, the Assistens Kirkegård, which I braved the metro system to visit. From what I could tell it seemed like a large cemetery, and I was afraid I’d get lost in some weird Gothic labyrinth and possibly attacked by ghosts. As it turned out, the moment you walk in there are about 5000 signs to point you to Hans’ grave, which is maybe a one-minute walk from the front gate. (Kierkegaard is also buried there, but I didn’t see any signs to his final resting place.)
HCA grave in Copenhagen.
I was hoping to film a book trailer at Hans’ grave, though I’ll admit it was a bit Goth-y of me, especially as I was dressed all in black… but this proved to be quite difficult since apparently Danes like to just hang out and jog and take romantical walks through cemeteries, and on top of that Hans’ grave itself is massively popular, even on a weekday afternoon, it seems. Every time I started to film something another pair of lovebirds, or group of schoolchildren, or lone jogger, or bevy of stroller-pushing mamas, came by. Apparently in the summertime the Danes have picnics and sunbathe amongst the dead, too. Maybe when your most famous dead person is a sad-faced oversized man who wrote devastating stories of mermaids turning to foam, you’re a little less glum about death generally? But I sat in front of his grave and did my best, and thought it a blessing that my lack of understanding Danish likely spared me many impolite observations of my person.
And then I was out of time, which is an appropriate thing to be whilst sitting in a graveyard, and so I hightailed it back to the subway, and to my hotel, and to the train station and the airport, and back to Berlin.
All in all, I’m not sure how much insight I got into Hans Christian Andersen through this visit to Denmark, but at least occasionally, when I squinted, I felt like I had some sense of the world Hans lived in, with its magical amusement parks and tree-lined rivers and grand theaters, its tiny apartments, its cobbled streets and gloomy skies. How much of this was in my mind and how much in the world itself I don’t know, but I’m not sure that my new best friend Hans would have cared too much about the distinction, anyway.
This past March, I had the pleasure of attending the Myths and Fairy Tales in Film and Literature post-1900 conference at the University of York. As well as being a sort of CdF reunion, with Helen Pilinovksy and I seeing each other in person for the first time in several years, I had the opportunity to meet one of SB’s authors, John Patrick Pazdziora, who as well as being the author of some fantastic fiction and poetry, is a doctoral candidate at the University of St. Andrews. John, along with Catriona McAra and Emily Dezurick-Badran, presented papers for the Anti-tales panel.
Having seen references to the term anti-tale in passing prior to this event, my curiosity was piqued by this seemingly new way of looking at story, especially–but not only–as it applies to fairy tales. So, in between panels, I asked John if he would mind answering a few questions about the anti-tale for the readers of CdF. He was happy to oblige.
CdF: Tell us something about the history of “anti-tale” and what it means for scholarship today.
JPP: Before I get into answering this, I need to acknowledge the tremendous debt of knowledge everyone working on anti-tale owes to David Calvin (Univeristy of Ulster) and Catriona McAra (University of Glasgow).
David is primarily responsible for the revival of “anti-tale” as a critical term. He’s done some simply outstanding work on postmodern fairy tales, and his research has set a course for the rest of us to follow. Catriona, in her collaboration with David, has broadened out anti-tale into an interdisciplinary and multi-modal expression through her study of surrealism. She’s worked tirelessly both in arranging the anti-tale conference in Glasgow last August, and in orchestrating a striking array of critical expertise for the anthology, Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment (Cambridge Scholars, 2011). In all honestly, everything I’ve learned about anti-tales, I’ve learned from them. They’re outstanding scholars. And they’re both really wonderful, fun people too. So it’s my privilege to have them as colleagues and friends.
They’re probably going to murder me when they read that, but oh well.
I say all that because, to answer this question, I’m really just reiterating David Calvin’s research. Anti-tale as a term first appeared in the early 20th century as a genre marker–Anti-märchen as distinguished from Kinder-märchen, Wunder-märchen, and so on. Various scholars have used the term since, notably with reference to Kafka and authors like that, but not given it much more than a mention. David Calvin rediscovered the term, and recognized its relevance to the postmodern context–the sorts of deconstructive fairy tale retelling we’ve been seeing at least since the 70s. Again, as a genre marker, it’s been very useful in providing an umbrella term over subversive currents in the arts, and fairy tale scholarship in particular. Angela Carter, for instance, and her ‘demythologising’ project are in some ways a lodestone for understanding anti-tale–a good introduction, as it were.
The primary scholastic value so far has been retrospective, really. We have this term now, and people are talking about it and thinking about it. And it lets us look back at literature and the arts–at something like Waiting for Godot, say, which in many ways is the ideal anti-tale, or Tristram Shandy, or more recently Roald Dahl and Jan Švankmajer–and say, ‘Oh, that’s what this is.’ It’s recognizing the shadow, really–recognizing it and naming it, instead of hedging around it with vague adjectives. Anti-tale is a shadow-genre; to invoke Jung, anti-tale is the shadow self of narrative–obscured, suppressed, and occluded voices and variants. Anti-tale scholarship provides us with a way of listening to those voices, of learning from them and beginning to understand them. Anti-tale is at its heart the voice of the Other, and the Outcast. And we need that. We need to hear those voices and learn from them.
I’m getting increasingly interested in the forward-reaching implications of anti-tale. What sort of critical theory will emerge from the genre study? What sorts of stories will be written, what sort of art created, if we’re consciously creating anti-tales? In many ways, it’s too early to say, but it’s exciting to speculate. And it will be exciting to see where the field goes. I’ve seen a lot of people, particularly emerging researchers and artists, getting very interested in anti-tale. It’s a very fertile concept, really. It holds a lot of promise.
CdF: OK, so let’s talk about this in terms of retelling original tales. Are retellings always anti-tales? If not, what is the difference between them? What markers can one look for in a story that would indicate that it is an anti-tale as opposed to a retelling?
JPP: No. Retellings are not always anti-tales. And anti-tales are not always retellings.
I think the classic examples of this are the Disney fairy tale films. There’s nothing ‘anti’ about them, at least not in the sense that we’re talking about here. Jack Zipes has been zealous in pointing out that they simply regurgitate the bourgeois and bowdlerized project of the Grimms and other late-Victorian popular collections. They perpetrate and exacerbate the existing variants. Now, that’s an example of it being done poorly, because it’s the negative elements–the objectification of women, and so on–that are getting preserved in these retellings.
You can, of course, get good retellings –where it’s the same tale simply being re-appropriated by a new teller. A good brilliant example of this is Padraic Colum, and what he does with ‘The Twelve Swans,’ transposing it into the Unique Tale in The King of Ireland’s Son (1916). That’s perhaps the single greatest retelling I’ve ever read, actually. Another outstanding brilliant example is the work Anthony Minghella did for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1987/1988). He took the existing tales and simply told them himself–not bowdlerizing at all, not trivializing at all, just reimagining and recapturing the mythic centre of the tale in a new linguistic form. Gorgeous.
In a way, it’s what a jazz or folk musician does with a melody. They learn the tune, the standard, but then make it their own. Each performance is uniquely different and uniquely theirs. That doesn’t make it any less the standard; that doesn’t make it any less available to any other musician. But the melody exists to be replayed and reinterpreted in that way. Fairy tales are like music, after all. They exist to be performed, to be spoken or sung. We tend to forget that. So that’s what retelling is. It’s improvising on a standard tale.
So, as I see it, a retelling preserves an ongoing tradition of tale and tale-telling. It’s a folk tradition, a performing art. An anti-tale, however, is destructive. It’s calling this process into question; it’s unwriting and untelling the tales. The Bloody Chamber, for instance, is an anti-tale in that it’s Bluebeard who gets blasted to hell by the heroine’s mum. But in that way it’s also a degree of wish-fulfillment, because a lots of mums probably would want to do something like that, if some guy was doing this to their daughter. So an anti-tale is an extreme reappropriation–it’s a tearing apart of the fabric of a tale to make one that we like better. Or one that challenges or hurts us more–one that makes us ask harder questions.
It’s not just improvising. It’s like what Arnold Schoenberg did, for instance–overturning not just the melodies of the masters, but the entire tonal structure of Western Music. Or Picasso, distorting the human figure, fracturing realism. That’s why so many anti-tale studies focus on the surrealists, actually–there’s a blurring and distorting effect of anti-tale that artists like these sought to capture.
An anti-tale doesn’t need to be the deconstruction of a particular tale. It can the dismantling of a whole tale-telling tradition–although you have to be very, very good if you’re going to do that. It’s not a coincidence that I mentioned Picasso! You need to be superb at the craft, to know the tradition you’re dismantling, before you can do it effectively. Otherwise you just get angry postmodernists writing very postmodern tales who think they’re being edgy. Well, they’re not. They’re just dog-paddling along behind Nabokov and Angela Carter. They’re dissing 1950s morality, sure, but we don’t live in the 1950s anymore. Elvis is probably dead.
For an anti-tale to be truly superb, it needs to be not only subverting a tale or a tradition, it needs to subvert the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, the tales that are being told in the present and the immediate.
That’s what I’d say to look for, actually. Katherine Langrish wrote a wonderful article arguing that the very, very old, traditional tale ‘Mr Fox’ is actually a more effective and more liberating anti-tale than The Bloody Chamber. And I think she’s absolutely right. The term may be new, but anti-tales are as old as tales themselves.
And we shouldn’t assume a binary distinction–tales queue up on the right, anti-tales on the left, thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, don’t shove please, you’ve got all day to see Santa Claus! It’s not binary. It’s a continuum. There’s elements of tale and anti-tale in every narrative, I think. Like self and shadow-self, to use Jungian terms again. They’re both always present; they’re part of the same thing. It’s just a question of where on the continuum a particular tale or telling happens to fall. There’s nothing new to what we’re doing; it’s an old and a wonderful part of the old, wonderful tradition of tale-telling. If we’re missing that, we’re deluding ourselves. And we’re probably not telling very good tales, anti or otherwise.
CdF: It strikes me that the most powerful anti-tale might be one in which the author did not set out to write an anti-tale. You mentioned the surrealists, and I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories by Leonora Carrington, The Oval Lady. It contains some of Carrington’s usual motifs (the white horse, the number seven), which puts one on familiar ground, but in it she defies everything we know about story. I suspect ‘The Oval Lady’ (one story in the collection The Oval Lady) might be considered an anti-tale. Can you share with us some more recent examples of anti-tales, particularly fairy tales?
JPP: I think until recently you’d almost have to be unwittingly writing an anti-tale. You might be consciously writing a fairy tale subversion or a deconstruction, but the term anti-tale has only recently started to come into currency. I think we’ll start seeing more people trying to write deliberate anti-tales because of that, but you’re right–that does nothing to guarantee the quality.
Carrington isn’t an author I’m familiar with, but from your description it definitely sounds like a good anti-tale. For more modern examples–my chapter in Anti-Tales is on James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time (1940). That’s an excellent example. I just recommend Thurber in general. Also, Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1982)–Cinderella marrying a jam-maker of good reputation–it’s incredibly subversive, and in keeping with Dahl’s political project. A man’s a man for a’ that, kind of thing. Samuel Beckett is a bit less recent, but most of what he wrote could be considered anti-tale, I’d say. Also Neil Gaiman, some of his stories in M is for Magic. And of course Kafka is the classic example.
These are all men , aren’t they? That probably says less about anti-tale than it does about me as a reader–but Angela Carter and A. S. Byatt are acknowledged as being luminaries of the genre. Margaret Atwood, too, with her fairy tale subversions. And, if you want something darker and weirder, Rikki Ducornet. And if we can step away from writing for a minute, Robert Powell and Tessa Farmer are two amazing young artists who are creating tremendous and deeply, deeply disturbing visual anti-tales. So, watch for their names.
All of these authors, I’ll shamelessly add, are discussed in the Anti-Tales book that’s just been published. Robert Powell drew the cover for us, so it’s a little troubling. It looks like it was illustrated by the ghost of Hieronymous Bosch. That’s what did happen, actually–his ghost began haunting us with horrible doodles until we let it draw the cover. No, not really. We didn’t need a ghost this time. We had Robert, which was just as good. Maybe better.
CdF: Allow me to play the part of the skeptic for a moment. Why do we need yet another way of thinking about story? I understand that considering the anti-properties of a tale can lead to further elucidation and understanding of tales already told, but how does this further the craft of story-telling itself?
JPP: Stories are endless. We’ve not gotten to the bottom of them yet, and we never will. That’s part of what makes them so endlessly fascinating. How long does it take to read a story, to hear a story? Twenty minutes? Ten? But we keep going back to them and the best stories–like with all art–show us more and more and take us further and further every time. It’s like falling in love. Why do we scribble yet another love note that, if we face up to it, is exactly like every other love note we’ve written and says all the same things notes of that sort usually say? In the same ways? Because just one can’t say it all. We’re constantly trying to find words to say what we feel, to articulate our emotions, but we keep feeling even as we’re talking, so we need to keep talking. And it’s like that with stories.
As far as criticism–literary criticism is like science. We keep making new discoveries, we just don’t get on the BBC or Discovery Channel, more’s the pity. A hundred years ago, no one knew about DNA, no one knew about quantum, no one knew about relativity. They were all there, but it took a change of presupposition and a development of technology to bring them into focus. Anti-tale has been around since the beginning of tales–telling a story to a child, for instance, reading a familiar story, and you get this impulse to tease the child: ‘And the Big Bad Wolf ran into the house on a GIANT BULLDOZER and smashed through the brick and ate the three little pigs all up, nom nom nom warra warra!’ And the child is laughing her head off and trying to take the book away from you and wailing ‘Read it right! Read it right!’ That’s anti-tale. That’s what anti-tale really is. (Or maybe that’s just me, and my weird sense of humor when I read to children. I don’t know.)
We make it more complex and much darker, the way there are more complex and much darker stories than ‘The Three Little Pigs’; it’s like any art in that it has various levels, various stages of rarefication. But anti-tale begins with that–with a very human desire to ask, what happens if things turned out differently? If we take this apart and turn this upside down,? If we look under this rock or inside this cave? It’s a very human desire to explore, to change, to turn things upside down. We do that with everything, and we do that with stories.
How does it help us with story-crafting, well–it helps to know what we’re doing. The more you know about stories, and the more you know how stories work, the better your stories will be. Any great author is also a great reader; writing has been traditionally very much a folk tradition in that way. You learn folk music by going out and listening to folk music. You learn to write by reading great writers. It’s no substitute for natural genius, and I’m not downplaying that, but even a natural genius learns from their tradition, of music or painting or writing or whatever.
Where writing has fallen behind the other arts is in the theory of it. There’s an elaborate and very sophisticated musical theory, for instance, which isn’t interpretative but is just recognition that in Western music, these chords related to other chords in a certain way, and these forms can be used to build these structures. So you have terms like sub-dominant and antiphonal and counterpunctal–it’s a description of techniques, of what the masters have done and how we’ve observed that stuff works. That’s not a value judgement, it’s just observation of a craft.
Writing has just as much complexity, we just haven’t classified it. It’s haphazard. So I think, for writers and storytellers, anti-tale can be a step toward that sort of observation, that level of understanding. It helps us understand not only what we can do, but what other writers and tellers have done. You can never understand too much about your art. I don’t care what the art is–you can never understand it too much. The more you learn, I think, the more you enjoy it.
And story, as I said, is endless. We could learn forever and never learn everything. Anti-tale is a part of that. Now we’ve seen it, we can ask questions of it and learn more and more about it, and then create new anti-tale and anti-anti-tales that give us even more to think about and learn. And to read and to enjoy, which is really the whole point.
So that’s what anti-tale is, and why I think it’s important. It’s an exciting discovery to be a part of.
CdF: Indeed, if we didn’t keep revisiting certain stories, this website would not exist. I get the feeling we’ve barely scratched the surface here of what the anti-tale means for past and future literature and the arts. That, for me, makes it all the more exciting. Thank you, John, for sharing your time with us!
If anyone is interested in reading more about the anti-tale, the anthology mentioned above is available for purchase:
Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment
Editor: Catriona McAra and David Calvin
Date Of Publication: May 2011
“Although anti-tales abound in contemporary art and popular culture, the term has been used sporadically in scholarship without being developed or defined. While it is clear that the aesthetics of postmodernism have provided fertile creative grounds for this tradition, the anti-tale is not just a postmodern phenomenon; rather, the “postmodern fairy tale” is only part of the picture. Broadly interdisciplinary in scope, this collection of twenty-two essays and artwork explores various manifestations of the anti-tale, from the ancient to the modern including romanticism, realism and surrealism along the way.”
John Patrick Pazdziora is a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He’s also a doctoral candidate at the School of English, University of St Andrews, so that just proves he’s mad. He writes almost anything he can at nearly every opportunity, including lyrics and academic essays. But his first true love is fantasy and fairytale.
James believes very strongly in letting kids know that someone out there believes in them. He is the author of The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica and is on the advisory board of Kids Need To Read, a non-profit organisation that works to “create a culture of reading for children by providing inspiring books to underfunded schools, libraries, and literacy programs across the United States, especially those serving disadvantaged children.” We at Cabinet des Fées can’t think of a better cause.
James has asked his “Dragon Army”, of which I am proudly one, to help promote Drawing out the Dragons. This request is more than a means of selling books, however. Here is what James has said:
“If DotD reaches the Top 100 books in the Kindle Store, I will donate $1000 to KNTR.
Furthermore, I will donate an additional $1000 for every month it appears at least once in the Top 100 books, without limitation.
I think that’s very, very doable – so I’m going to add to the challenge, and add to the incentive:
If DotD reaches the Top 10 list of books sold in the Kindle Store, I will donate $10,000 to KNTR.”
That statement is an example of the incredible spirit with which this book is infused, and so I am asking our readers to join the Dragon Army and help James spread the word. Let’s see if we can get Drawing out the Dragons into the top 10.
There are some jeweled moments in this collection of poems. Some sparkles of wit and gorgeous imagery that dazzle the eyes and the mind. There are some lines such as this one: “Time sings to itself and smells of space” from Heracleitus Warp Variants, this one from Dorothy’s Poem: “The long, gray of the rain had fallen” or this one from Wings of Augury: “Fortunes can be read in fallen leaves/ And in the white foam runes of the tide” that wrapped themselves around me when I read them and have not let go since.
The entire poem The Dark of the Matter is spectacular. Even though it is prose, it contains a rhythm that pulses throughout its lines and grants it a secretive beauty. It is my favorite of this particular poetry collection.
Now, it can’t all be good things, can it? There are a few of the poems that rely too much on “big” words. There are too many technical words, in my opinion, which could have been replaced by something else that could communicate more easily what Ms. Schein was trying to say. I found myself lost in them and reaching for my dictionary, which I should not have to do when reading modern poetry.
I cannot be too picky, though, because this collection is astounding and I cannot recommend it highly enough for anyone who wants to step into a mossy lane for a few minutes.
We have opened Scheherezade’s Bequest to submissions. We are using a new submission system, so please be sure to read over our guidelines as some things have changed. Our reading period will remain open until August 1, or until four issues are full — whichever comes first. Please help us get our fill of fairy tales by sending us your work!