New Release Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (2017)

I opened The Bear and the Nightingale with great anticipation and not a little trepidation; since the trend for fairy-tale fiction exploded some years ago, there have been some brilliant entries in the genre and some derivative duds. Katherine Arden’s debut novel looked promising, with its half-magical, half-historical Russian setting and an enticing cover, but what looks good doesn’t always turn out to be so in the reading.

Fortunately, from the first pages I was entranced, as Arden quickly led me into a truly wonder-full world, in which the time-honored motif of the mistreated stepdaughter gains new strength and richness through her multi-layered telling. There’s so much to discover and enjoy that I’d like to encourage you to just pick it up and explore it for yourself … but to name a few favorite aspects, I especially appreciated how elements of folklore and myth were treated in a way that brought them to life for modern readers, while feeling both genuinely atmospheric and psychologically true. At the same time, the historical setting — a medieval land of wooden huts, wandering monks and tribal machinations — is economically but convincingly developed through telling details of life and language.

Toward the end, I found that Arden’s storytelling weakened a bit. The villains became more one-sided and less interesting, and the battles with monsters started to feel too much like a video-game slugfest for my personal taste. I’m hoping that in the sequels (and yes! there will be sequels!) she’ll carry the skill she shows so amply in the buildup of this story through to the very last pages. I will definitely be watching for her next effort with great interest, and confidence that this time my expectations will be rewarded.


Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation


Witch Week 2015: Readalong of The Bloody Chamber

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Please don’t miss the chance to enter the giveaway for a gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Bloody Chamber, open through November 7.

© Igor Karash, 2012 - The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
From the Folio Society edition of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, © Igor Karash, 2012

Today, we’re discussing Angela Carter’s landmark 1979 collection of dark, sensuous variations on the fairy tale theme. If you’ve read the book, either now or at any time in the past, please share your thoughts in the comments. You can also post on Twitter using the hashtag #WitchWeekECBR.

My own first impression was of how vividly Angela Carter evokes the sensory world with her lush, baroque language. I loved her unusual turns of phrase, and her musical sense of sound and rhythm. Occasionally it could be a bit too much, but overall I enjoyed the word-painting. The stories are very simple in terms of character and plot, so this elaborate language forms an essential element of their structure.

Although various traditional tales are invoked as sources, they seemed to me to be all a variation on Beauty and the Beast. And there is beauty and beastliness within each of us, male and female, human and animal. The emphasis on sexuality can be wearying, ground-breaking though it must have been at the time. I felt like saying “Yes, but what else?” There’s more to human beings than genitalia and lust.

The stories have the weakness of most short stories in my experience: they don’t go on long enough to develop the themes or characters much. The images are powerful and rich, but they pass too soon and too simply.  I enjoyed the narrative voice in “The Bloody Chamber” and “The Tiger’s Bride” in particular, and would love to have seen these developed with more complexity into a novel.

I was struck by this quotation from “The Company of Wolves”: “There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as those long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption…” How do the stories play on these “irremediable appetites,” and is there any hint of redemption to be found in any of them? Can Beauty ever overcome the Beast? Or is there beauty within beastliness?

Have you read The Bloody Chamber? What do you think about how Angela Carter twists and transforms familiar tales? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

© Igor Karash, 2012 - The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories
From the Folio Society edition of The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, © Igor Karash, 2012


Witch Week 2015: Top Ten Stories That Take the Old to the New (Guest Post)

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

TopTenSQFor today’s post, I went to one of my favorite sources of Top Ten Tuesday lists, Susie from Girl with Her Head in a Book, to see whether she’d be up for doing one especially for Witch Week. I was so happy that she agreed to take on the challenge for her first-ever guest post! GWHHIAB’s lists are always full of surprising connections, interesting insights, and boundless enthusiasm, and this one is no exception. I hope you’ll find some old and new favorites in this list, which has something for everyone. Enjoy!


So, this is my very first ever guest post and I am a tiny bit excited. When Lory explained about Witch Week and asked me to draw up a list of stories which made use of fairy tales and other traditional lore, my brain immediately went into overdrive and this is a mere edited summary of a list that could probably have hit three figures if I had not been very careful. Many stories hinge on the same structure and there are many novels which are the clear offspring of more primeval forebears. We have been telling and retelling each other the same stories since the beginning of time; what is interesting is how the methods we use have changed over the centuries.

The Harry Potter Chronicles, JK Rowling


While many have criticised this series as a derivative British boarding school adventure (particular parallels being drawn to The Worst Witch), I would argue that they are missing the point. JK Rowling takes the core grammar of fairy-tales and makes them her own. The magical universe of witches, wizards, spells and magical creatures is harnessed in a structure of rules and regulations. The older laws of folklore are disregarded by the foolish at their peril — we see this as Umbridge decries the centaurs as ‘filthy half-breeds’ and thus is abducted by them, but more particularly when You-Know-Who’s lack of heed to the old rules brings about his downfall. Rowling’s collection The Tales of Beedle the Bard makes use of the fairy tale structure with similar adeptness — her prose may not have the fluidity of an Angela Carter, but one cannot doubt that Rowling speaks fairy-tale fluently. Image: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Cinderella – Ella Enchanted, Ella’s Big Chance

ella_cover_different  ellas chance

The Cinderella rags-to-riches story is one of the very, very oldest and but the figure of Cinderella is surprisingly fluid. Cloak-a-Rushes makes her the cast-out daughter of the King; in Mexico they call her Adelita, in Germany Ashputtel, but she is just a rose by another name. About ten to fifteen years ago, there was a trend for more assertive Cinderellas. In Ever After, Drew Barrymore played a version who read Utopia, befriended Leonardo Da Vinci and who only married the Dauphin when she was certain that he loved her. In Shirley Hughes’s Ella’s Big Chance, in the end Ella decided that she didn’t know the prince very well and that she’d rather marry Buttons whom she’d known all her life and knew would be a good match. My personal favourite is Ella Enchanted (don’t watch the film, though, it’s dire), which has a heroine who bounds onto the page, most likely tripping over her own feet. Bound by a childhood curse which has forced her to be obedient, Ella is determined to overcome it by any means necessary. More recent adaptations seem to indicate a downturn, however, with Kenneth Branagh’s recent Cinderella displaying a return to the more inert portrayals. I am not sure what this means, except perhaps that fashions change, but I know which version I would most wish to pass on to the next generation.

Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey/Dark Fairy Tales

Twilightbook  fifty shades of grey
I know. It’s awful. But for a list like this, it is impossible to ignore the rise of the Dark Fairy Tale. You can spot them a mile away — their covers are black with a single brightly-coloured object in the centre which somehow symbolises the monstrosity behind the myth. These are generally ‘low-fantasy’ books, meaning that magic is not supposed to exist, with an ingenue heroine who gets to be all startled by the goings-on. The insipid Bella Swann is a good example of this; another is Amanda Seyfried playing Red Riding Hood. Being the lead in a dark fairy tale involves being pale, wearing a lot of lip gloss, and gawping a lot in terror. Still, the original Grimm Fairy Tale version of Red Riding Hood is also pretty shocking in its implied eroticism, with the Wolf getting the child into bed — there are a lot of theories that the myth of Red Riding Hood itself is about the loss of virginity. This links in to Fifty Shades of Grey, with Christian Grey being a fairly creepy version of the Big Bad Wolf — but he is so insanely wealthy that the heroine allows herself to be swept off her feet. For all that Anastasia may repeatedly claim that she is not swayed by the expensive books, the helicopter and the designer clothes, it is obvious that E L James expects the reader to be impressed. Forget a pumpkin coach — this man can buy a fancy car. Never mind glass slippers, this guy can get you Louboutins. Forget the gentleman bringing the lady Milk Tray, Christian Grey just buys her an iPad. The obvious materialism of this is depressing, but it does represent the rising consumerist obsession of our society. We want our fairy tales with better stuff and we don’t want to have to pay for it ourselves.

Discworld, Terry Pratchett


I have mourned few authors in the way in which I mourned Terry Pratchett. I loved Discworld, this anarchic interpretation of a post-Industrial-Revolution Fairyland. Although the series followed a broad continuity, it was easy enough to dip in and out and each of the books tended to satirise and skewer something slightly different. Dwarves and trolls are locked in a sectarian-style conflict, vampires attempt to rehabilitate and overcome their addiction and over in Lancre, there is Granny Weatherwax using headology to keep things running. Pratchett always has a healthy respect for the risks of magic — the wizarding Archchancellors of the Unseen University have a high mortality rate in early volumes, with the institution’s librarian being turned into an orang-utan. In Lords and Ladies, we meet the deadly elves, but it is the way that Pratchett balances their menace with humour that shows what a skillful storyteller he truly was.  And I always remember how he explains that country folk put horseshoes over the doorway because those tended to be handy pieces of iron that they were likely to have hanging around, and somewhere deep down they remembered that iron repelled elves. There is a kind of practicality to Pratchett’s writing that brings the traditions of fairy tales down to earth — such as in The Wee Free Men, when Tiffany Aching reads that the monster that has abducted her younger brother has ‘eyes the size of soup-plates.’  Recognising that this is of little help, Tiffany goes home, gets a tape measure and finds a soup plate, and then has an actual idea of what she is dealing with. An excellent attitude to have, given that she is introduced shortly afterwards to the Nac Mac Feegle, a race of Scottish pixies thrown out of Fairyland for being Drunk and Disorderly. Throughout the series, Pratchett displays little sympathy for those of a poetic or artistic disposition — Agnes Nitt never does get to be Perdita Dream — but he does let his characters learn Useful Lessons, perhaps the greatest fable tradition of all. Image: Yenefer

The Peter Grant Adventures, Ben Aaronovitch

peter grantI still feel as though ridiculously few people have read the Peter Grant books.  Starting with Rivers of London, they move on to Moon Over Soho, then Whispers Undergound and Broken Homes. Last year saw the release of Foxglove Summer, with The Hanging Tree coming up next year. Peter Grant was a bog-standard trainee police officer when he happened to be accosted by a ghost while guarding a murder scene. With his only other career option being the Case Progression Unit (paperwork and nothing but), Peter reluctantly agrees to join the occult division of the Met, headed by Inspector Nightingale (a.k.a. Merlin/Gandalf/Dumbledore, except that something’s going on that means he’s aging in reverse, nobody is sure why but Nightingale is not complaining). The beauty of the series is how standard police jargon is applied to magical matters. Having been fully-trained in political correctness, Peter winces at the term ‘black wizard,’ preferring instead ‘ethically-challenged,’ and he is fully committed to ‘engaging with the stake-holders’ of the magical community, as well as dealing with the turf wars between Mother Thames and Father Thames (unrelated entities, hence the issue). Nightingale and Peter have the classic bleary-eyed cynicism of law enforcement, except their cases involve children abducted by the Faerie Queen, or the on-going calamity of the Faceless Man. One part I particularly enjoy is how Peter’s Sierra Leonean mother is so much prouder of her wizard-fighting son than she ever would have been when he was a mere policeman. Like Harry Potter, this book roots itself in our world, but applies twenty-first-century attitudes to ancient stories to superb effect. Image: Ben Aaronovitch

Which Witch?, Eva Ibbotson

which-witch-978144726574001I read this as a child and adored it — I also loved The Secret of Platform 13 and The Great Ghost Rescue, but this one has to be number one. Arriman’s parents looked at their baby and saw that he was different.  So his father very sensibly went to the library, looked up his symptoms and came up with a diagnosis — wizard.  And a dark one at that. So they named him Arriman and encouraged him to be the best kind of dark wizard that it was possible to be. When the time comes for Arriman to select a wife, he decides to hold an evil magic contest of the witches in his local area, who are not a particularly prepossessing group. My personal favourite is Mother Bloodworth, who is rather elderly and finds doing magic taxing, so her continued attempts to cast a spell to make herself young again have the distressing side-effect of repeatedly transforming her into a coffee table. I love the inversion of a group of women competing for a man’s hand rather than vice versa, and the supporting characters are superb.

The Borrowers and The Little Grey Men

borrowers  little grey men

One of my favourite fairy tales was that of the Elves and the Shoemaker. I loved the details about the little clothes that the Shoemaker’s wife made for the Elves — it is a very gentle use of the myth that arming any of these magical creatures with clothes will set them free, another old myth that JK Rowling makes use of. It is that urge to examine our world on a micro level that makes both Mary Norton’s Borrowers series and BB’s The Little Grey Men so much fun — and I could not choose between them. Neither series is rooted in a world that is inherently magical, indeed they are both recognisably dominated by humans. Mary Norton specifies that she had attempted to remain in the bounds of realism in her writing — even Pod’s balloon is designed to work properly. The fascination for me was always the idea of viewing life on a micro level, of tiny people who plunder dolls-houses for their chinaware, for whom mice are deadly predators and whose habitat is always under threat from those giants who are incapable of understanding them. The metaphor is heavy-handed (protect the planet!) but no less beautifully delivered.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

book-of-lost-things-uk-225I almost put this one in the dark fairy tales but I feel that there is more to it than that. The Book of Lost Things embraces all that is dark and deadly about fairy tales along with a hefty helping of nastiness from the land of Men. David is an angry child, bitter at his mother’s death and father’s immediate remarriage — David is promised a kingdom by the Crooked Man if he will only give up his half brother George, or else he must find the current King Jonathan’s Book of Lost Things so he can go home. Like the musical Into the Woods and Kate Danley’s The Woodcutter, here fairyland reflects the darkness within our own imaginations, our fears given flesh and teeth. David is disgusted by how his father’s sexual appetite let him to betray David’s mother, and his revulsion for womankind is played out in the land he is taken to.  Sexuality is a frequent theme in fairytales, for all that they are supposedly designed for children. The magical realm is a place for broken things and broken people — be careful where you step, because anything could be out there in the wood.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Erin-Morgenstern-The-Night-CircusThis novel went viral a few years ago and publishers have been seeking to replicate its success ever since.  I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve seen with stickers or quotes beside them saying that they are ‘perfect for fans of The Night Circus.’  I feel a certain degree of cynicism about books being marketed on the merits of others, but I understand the urge to return to the Circus’s very particular glamour.  The circus is a fantastical realm, constructed to play out the contest between Marcus and Celia — a highly original wizarding duel. But the plot is secondary to the evocative descriptions of the luxurious delights available should the Circus des Reves ever head your way. It reminds me of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” of the rooms upon rooms of magical beauty, all of which can be only sampled sparingly. One never knows when the spell may be struck asunder, sending us back to a world which will always seem the greyer once we have glimpsed bright colour.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

​I truly believe that Neil Gaiman is the one-man Brothers Grimm for our age.  Like JK Rowling, he masters the fairy tale format with flair and fluency, but his prose is also startling in its perfection. I have come to his work only gradually and feel slightly late to the party.  What always impresses me is how he consistently brings a fresh perspective to old stories — his “The Problem of Susan” tackled the uncomfortable fate of Susan Pevensie, Anansi Boys breathed new life into the Anansi mythology, and more recently he wrote The Sleeper and the Spindle. My personal favourite remains The Ocean at the End of the Lane which in my view is as near to perfect as a novel can get. The Man is discontented and by chance finds himself in the area in which he grew up, so he looks for the pond which his childhood friend swore was an ocean. As the story unfolds, we are treated to an unearthly tale — but is it what truly happened? There are several points when the Man acknowledges that there are other interpretations. Which takes us to the reason why people first began to tell each other stories in the first place — to better understand our humanity. Gaiman understands not only the grammar of fantasy but also what motivates it — fans of the fairy tale would do well to follow him.

Once again, a great big thank you to Lory for letting me participate — I have had so much fun drawing up the list.  There were many very worthy contenders which did not make the cut but I would urge you to remember that fairy tales are worth reading well beyond the bounds of childhood — they contain so many truths about our own nature, and the differing ways we tell them tells us a lot about ourselves as well.

Girl with her Head in a Book is from the UK and tends to panic if she only has one book in her handbag. Currently living in Oxford, she’s a Northerner at heart and likes knitting, Jane Austen and Granny Smith apples. Add a cup of tea and you’ve got yourself an ideal afternoon in. Her site features listography, reviews and general book-themed tomfoolery. Visitors are always welcomed warmly.

Witch Week 2015: Don’t Bet on the Prince (Guest Post)

This post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

DontBetPrinceFor today’s Witch Week post, I’m delighted to welcome guest blogger Chris from Calmgrove to offer his thoughts on a groundbreaking collection of feminist fairy tales and critical essays, Don’t Bet on the Prince.

Nearly thirty years ago, the work of editor Jack Zipes paved the way for a veritable explosion of creative and scholarly activity in the field since — and yet, as we’re seeing in so many ways today, we may not have come all that far on our journey toward true gender equality. What do stories, old and new, have to teach us today? Can we make out of them workable “training manuals” for the challenges we all face, in what we share as fellow human beings as well as in our differences? Thanks to Chris for pointing us toward a book that can help us to remember these still-relevant questions.


Training Manuals

Jack Zipes, editor
Don’t Bet on the Prince:
Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England
Gower/Methuen 1986

Fairy tales are never static: they’re always changing according to the teller, the medium, the audience, the prevailing culture. What we call ‘classic’ fairy tales are products of the early modern period, edited and retold by men (or women within a male-oriented or male-dominated culture). Marcia K Lieberman succinctly calls traditional fairy tales “training manuals for girls,” telling them the acceptable ways to behave and what to expect out of life. But these narratives – culturally determined dreamscapes peopled with archetypes – can and should change to reflect our awareness that all is not set in stone. As Jack Zipes, the editor of this now historic collection of tales and essays, writes, feminist fairy tales “explore new possibilities for gender rearrangement.”

Illustration by Walter Crane from King Thrushbeard. Source: SurLaLune Fairy Tales

Lieberman’s essay usefully underscores how literary fairy tales ended with a moral, either explicit or implicit. Virtue is rewarded, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next: and female virtues included passivity, patience and victimhood. Lieberman reminds us that in The Blue Fairy Book – as edited by Andrew Lang in 1889 – “most of the heroines are entirely passive, submissive, and helpless,” as for example is the Sleeping Beauty. She points out that “the system of rewards in fairy tales equates with these three factors: being beautiful, being chosen, and getting rich.” When the female protagonist achieves one or more of these goals life for her stops, as the rubric “lived happy ever after” indicates.

TransformationsSextonWhat feminist takes on these tales do is re-envisage ideas of attractiveness, passiveness and blatant gold-digging. Lieberman notes that it’s interesting that in these tales “powerful good women are nearly always fairies” (that is, non-human) whereas remote evil women are shown as “active, ambitious, strong-willed and, most often, ugly” – with the added vice of jealousy where the protagonist is concerned.

The sixteen pieces – mostly prose tales but with some powerful poetry by the likes of Anne Sexton – mostly date from the 70s and 80s, as do the four essays. There’s only space to mention a handful but all are rarely just subversive, for they strive to right the balance in favour of our common humanity by giving the female leads active, positive characters and roles. They don’t always end happily ever after either.

Michael de Larrabeiti’s ‘Malagan and the Lady of Rascas’ is not a straight retelling of any one classic tale, but points out the danger of males believing they ‘own’ their wives. Sorcery and the vagaries of war combine to ensure a baron’s wife never regains her beauty; but her innate goodness, belying the notion that beauty is only skin deep, eventually proves the redemption of much that she holds dear. As for the heroine being ‘chosen’ by her suitor, Jeanne Desy’s ‘The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet’ definitely subverts the traditional tale of ‘King Thrushbeard’ as well as being an implicit commentary on Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (as Zipes points out). Finally, the cliché of the lead female being motivated solely by cupidity is shown the door in Jane Yolen’s poignant ‘The Moon Ribbon,’ a re-visioning of the Cinderella tale.

Forest Path
Into the woods…photo by Chris Lovegrove

Zipes’s own essay is an illuminating examination of how the Little Red Riding Hood theme subtly evolves in narration and book illustration, so it’s entirely appropriate that I mention in conclusion Tanith Lee’s ‘Wolfland.’ Here is a powerful telling of the young woman in the familiar depths of an eerie woodland infested with wolves, but here the resemblances end. The grandmother is not in fact the victim of the wolf but a werewolf, the young woman not the disobedient (and some might say willing) victim but heiress to a blood legacy. But then I could as equally mention any of the tales by Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Meghan B Collins or Joanna Russ – or indeed by all the other writers – as worthy of note. In an era when, thankfully, the incidence of kickass heroines is proliferating it’s important to recognise some of the pioneering authors who paved the way.

And the moral? Ah, there’s always a moral. This one will do, from the end of ‘Malagan’: He who turns to evil will, at the end, find it turned against him. If not in the present, then at some future date. That would be very appropriate in a radically rewritten training manual for girls.

Chris Lovegrove posts photos on My New Shy, micropoetry on Zenrinji and book reviews on Calmgrove. After a career in music education he now has time to lavish on more selfish pursuits like reading and reflecting on books, including those he didn’t take the time over in his youth. He now appreciates Zappa’s heartfelt cry, “So many books, so little time.”

Ten Favorite Fairytale Retellings

PicMonkey FairyTales

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is Favorite Fairy Tale Retellings. I already did a post on seven of my favorites, but here are ten more that I enjoyed. (As you can tell, this is one of my favorite genres — I’d love more recommendations!)

  • Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Rapunzel)
  • A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce (Rumpelstiltskin)
  • East by Edith Pattou (East of the Sun, West of the Moon)
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Cinderella)
  • Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Maid Maleen)
  • Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier (The Twelve Dancing Princesses)
  • Deerskin by Robin McKinley (Donkeyskin)
  • Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip (Beauty and the Beast)
  • Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede (Snow White and Rose Red)
  • Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl (The Goose Girl)

New Release Review and Giveaway: The Wild Girl

Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl (2013, US edition 2015)

WildGirlOnce upon a time, there was a young girl who fell in love with the boy next door. He was handsome, clever, and kind, but much too poor to think of marriage, and her stern and forbidding father kept her closely guarded. Only after many years of trials and delays were the couple able to marry, and build a happier life together.

This is no fairy tale, but the true story of Dortchen Wild, who became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm, editor with his brother Jakob of the famous German story collection Kinder- und Hausmärchen. While little is known about her — not much more than the bare outline above — out of these scraps of material Kate Forsyth has woven a moving and compelling novel that demonstrates the power of stories to reveal and heal our innermost souls.

For one thing we do know about Dortchen is that she was a storyteller. She told Wilhelm a quarter of the tales included in the first edition of the Grimm collection, although she and other contributors were uncredited and remained largely ignored throughout most of the ensuing reprints and revisions. The brothers wanted to emphasize the roots of the tales in old Germanic tradition, not how they were filtered through the imagination of a nineteen-year-old girl. And while their deep universality and archetypal value have become clear over the past two centuries, it’s still intriguing to wonder what individual experiences might have shaped the stories and their tellers. With so little else to go by, what do Dortchen’s stories tell us about her? They are some of the most beautiful, extraordinary, and puzzling of the whole collection, including the disturbing “Coat of Many Furs,” with its themes of incest, oppression, and silence. Where did they come from, and what happened to the girl who told them?

Without reducing these stories to mere personal allegories, Forsyth imaginatively reconstructs a possible life for Dortchen that is as dark and grim as the tales themselves, but ultimately as uplifting and redemptive. Along the way she also illuminates the place, time, and people that gave them birth, to which I’m embarrassed to say I never gave a thought before. I never considered the plight of the Germanic kingdoms under Napoleonic rule, the fight to preserve their heritage as they were being overrun by French and Russian soldiers, having their young men conscripted into a doomed army, their wealth and resources ruined and lost by puppet kings. I never thought of how determined and brave the Grimm brothers were to keep at their task of preserving stories and poems that many must have thought useless at such a turbulent time, even though they were so poor they could hardly keep body and soul together. And above all, I never wondered who told them these stories, or what gave them their sources of spiritual strength and power.

I’m so glad that Kate Forsyth brought these questions to light, and that in The Wild Girl she has crafted them into such a rich story of love, suffering, and redemption. We may never know most of the objective facts of Dortchen’s life, but for the time of this telling she can live for us again, in a way that is true to the nature and essence of her marvelous tales.

I’m delighted to be able to offer a copy of The Wild Girl courtesy of Thomas Dunne Books. This giveaway will run through July 7 and is open to US entrants age 18 and over. Please use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter, and good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Once Upon a Time: Bitter Greens

Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (2012)


We tend to think of the tellers of fairy tales as anonymous, their personalities smoothed out and obscured by time, details of their lives irrelevant to the archetypal stories that have come down to us. But in fact the tellers and writers of these familiar tales were often real, individual women, who were known by name to the male collectors and anthologizers who took over their work and put their own stamp on it. The erasure of this female literary history is an injustice that has yet to be corrected.

In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth brings to light — in decidedly fictional, quasi-fantasy form — the story of one of these creators, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who set down the tale we now know as “Rapunzel.” She wasn’t the first or the last to do so, but she introduced important elements that we now take as essential to the story, including the healing of the blinded prince. In layers of tales within tales, Forsyth brings us into Charlotte-Rose’s glittering and precarious world, the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, then moves into stories of a century and more earlier, of a Venetian girl captured against her will, and of the witch whose revelation of her own dark history gives us insight into the origins of this tragedy and the elements of its redemption.

It’s a complex narrative to construct, and Forsyth does it well. She builds up her historical settings in rich and convincing detail, making us see and feel with the three women at their center. Only at the end does she falter a bit, in a rather hasty resolution that had less ambiguity than I personally would have preferred. But this didn’t diminish my pleasure in the book as a whole, or my interest in the fascinating, forgotten character of Charlotte-Rose herself. She illuminates much about the plight of women denied a way to express themselves other than through sexual means, and amazes us with the strength of her drive toward freedom. For all girls and women who are still locked in the tower of their own fears and uncertainties, she can be an inspiration.

I’m counting Bitter Greens for the “Fairy Tale” category of the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.

Paperback release date: May 19 from St. Martin’s Griffin


New Release Review: Victorian Fairy Tales

Michael Newton, ed., Victorian Fairy Tales (2015)


“If we wish to understand the Victorians, we should read their dreams,” says editor Michael Newton in his introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales. This impressive new one-volume collection goes a long way toward facilitating that goal. Along with the most important, influential, and frequently anthologized stories of the period, including “The King of the Golden River” by John Ruskin, “The Rose and the Ring” by W.M. Thackeray, “The Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, and “The Golden Key” by George MacDonald, it collects some lesser-known and wonderful tales by Mary de Morgan, Andrew Lang, Laurence Housman, E. Nesbit and others. With its insightful introduction and excellent notes, it will be useful for students and scholars while remaining inviting and non-intimidating for the casual reader or enthusiast of the genre.

The tone of the tales varies widely, from comic verging on the burlesque (“The Rose and the Ring”) to melancholy verging on the maudlin (“The Wanderings of Arasmon” by Mary de Morgan). As Newton points out, “the fairy tale is the most eclectic of forms,” and this collection showcases its versatility. Some writers augment and expand on the rather spare and laconic style of the traditional fairy tale, giving it a lyrical and poetic flavor. Others take an amusing and lightly humorous tone, playing with the narrative conventions that have come down from the past, and using them as a way to both highlight and mask the very modern concerns that lurk beneath the surface.

Illustration by Walter Crane

A good example of the latter mode is “The Queen Who Flew,” an early tale by the great twentieth-century novelist Ford Madox Ford, which was one of the few stories that I hadn’t encountered before. A young queen beset by greedy regents and troublesome revolutionaries leaves her country behind thanks to a magical flower that enables her to fly. As she journeys to various other lands her experiences help to give her maturity and knowledge of what is truly valuable in life. This story could be read by a child, certainly, but there are depths of adult understanding wound into its seemingly casual and episodic narrative.

Many of the stories were profusely illustrated when first published, and though regrettably the pictures could not all be included, the few examples that punctuate the text give a sense of the artistic style of the day. I appreciated the chance to read more about the artists and even about the original bindings in the notes (though pictures would have been even better). A further notable feature of this volume is an appendix that collects four brief but essential essays on “What is a fairy tale?” by John Ruskin, Juliana Horiatia Ewing, George MacDonald, and Laurence Housman. These defend and articulate the power of a form that has often been dismissed as mere fodder for the uneducated. As Ewing says, fairy tales “treat, not of the corner of a nursery or a playground, but of the world at large, and life in perspective; of forces visible and invisible; of Life, Death, and Immortality.” The publishers put this statement on the back cover of the book; it could stand as a motto for lovers of the fairy tale in all its incarnations.

In short, whether you have an abiding love for or passing interest in the Victorian fairy tale, you’ll find what you are seeking in this splendidly produced book.

Publication date: May 1, 2015 


In Fairy Tale Land: Some favorite fairy tale retellings

I just got wise to the fact that Charlene at Bookish Whimsy and Ana of Read Me Away are hosting a fantastic event this week: Away to Whimsical Fairy Tale Land invites us to explore our favorite fairy tales and their retellings. There’s a different topic for each day, and though it’s the middle of the week already, it’s not too late to jump in!

Rather than picking one tale as they suggest, I’ve gathered a list of some of my favorite retellings here. Sorry for breaking the rules, but I hope you’ll forgive me because these are seriously amazing books.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean (1991)
Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones (1985)
The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope (1974)
These are not all strictly speaking retellings, but variations on the theme of the ballad Tam Lin (fairy queen steals comely young man who must be rescued by his human lover). The first two are set in modern times (on a midwestern college campus and in the English midlands, respectively), and the last in a Tudor-era manor. Very different but all equally fabulous reads.

Beauty by Robin McKinley (1978)
A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” of course. This was McKinley’s first novel, and unlike most first novels, was accepted by the first publisher she sent it to. This makes sense because it’s utterly charming and beautifully written. I wrote a guest post about it recently which you can find here.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)
The Latin myth-cum-fairy tale of Cupid and Psyche lies behind all the “Beauty and the Beast” stories. In this novel, which he considered the best of his fictional works, Lewis sets the tale in the Hellenistic world on the borders of Greece and makes it a compelling story of jealousy, forgiveness and faith.

The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea (1985)
Two modern-day children wander into an adventure involving the gods and heroes of Irish mythology. Perhaps a bit long and episodic, but filled with humorous and enchanting moments.

Kate Crackernuts by K.M. Briggs (1963)
Written by an eminent scholar of British folklore, this version of an unusual tale of friendship between step-sisters, and the battle with the witch who is mother to one of them, is both harrowing and heartwarming.

That’s seven of my favorites, a good fairy tale number. What are yours?