Saturday, January 28, 2012

Except the Queen, by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder


Now and again I hope to offer a few comments on books I’ve read that seem to me connected to the concept of “sideways-in” fantasy. Today’s post does that. (Warning: This post contains spoilers.)

Image from penguin.com
Except the Queen, a recent (2010) novel by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder, takes the folktale tradition—with some non-traditional influences—in an interesting direction. First, the lead characters are two low-ranking sister fairies who are banished from the fairy world to the human one, where they appear as old women. However, unbeknown to them, a power struggle is brewing between the fairy Queen and the unseelie host, personified in this tale by a figure called “Redcap.” Second, the setting is today’s urban U.S., where college-aged kids are getting violated in various ways by evil fairies. Third, the real heroine of the story is a girl alienated from her roots, who turns out to be the Queen’s daughter. True to many fantasy novels, the low-ranking lead characters play a vital role in saving the world (at least the fairy one) from some catastrophe.

If you think about this novel in terms of how it handles the folktale tradition, some interesting points emerge. One, the writers have worked hard to bring forward a consistent vision of the fey realm, its workings and (in the part of the tradition from which they draw) its dual nature (good and evil fairy courts, in particular). Their portrayal of the fey realm succeeds insofar as it evokes an almost pagan sensibility. It’s not the only way to think of fairies, but it is potent, frightening, and thoroughly magicked. (Compare, for instance, “Tamlane,” among the darker fairy tales.)

Another point seems obvious: The writers have given serious thought to how this fey realm could be thought to interact with ours. Like many fantasies set in today’s world, things happen in the story that would seriously restructure the world as we know it. This leads to what amounts to an alternate “modern world,” much like fantasy set in the vaguely “Middle Ages” amounts to an alternate “medieval world.” More, the tale takes on an almost apocalyptic feel toward its end. If you don’t care for that sort of thing, then you don’t. But it’s part of the modern fantasy tradition.

In other words, Except the Queen makes innovations within a recognizable tradition—as it should. Its plot—I mean, the story itself and how it unfolds and how it gets resolved—owes more to the fantasy genre (and the novel tradition more generally) than it does to the folktales from which it draws. But, as we might expect from Yolen and Snyder, the novel seems unusually conscious of (and respectful toward) folk traditions about fairies and their magic, frivolity, and potency. It brings these traditions forward and makes something meaningful of them within the narration of the story. That’s the vibrancy, I would argue, at the heart of this fantasy novel.

(Without it, by the way, you would have a fairly customary plot, however interesting: Strayed girl and abused boy meet up with the help of two old meddling eccentric women, and find their roots (for the girl) and end the cycle of abuse (for the boy). That’s what people who classify these things would call a “literary novel.”)

There were times that the novel didn’t work that well for me, places where too many perspectives were present and some themes weren’t as developed as I’d have liked. (Jane Yolen mentions, on her blog, that they cut 10-15,000 words for an editor.) Even so, it was worth reading.


Dealing with fey subjects is never easy, I think, however riotous it seems at first glance. Kudos to Yolen and Snyder for their respectful handling of the tradition in an urban fantasy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Good and Evil in Fairy Tales - Or, "The Juniper Tree"


This is a huge topic; here’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg that I can see, and why you should maybe care.

The idea to write about this came up when I did my little study, short and flawed as it was, to find out if people are still buying fairy tales in any quantity (see "Do people still read fairy tales?"). What I found was a little surprising: Grimm outsells everybody. The Complete Grimm that Barnes & Noble puts out was ranked at 155 on their top seller lists in early January 2012. No other fairy tale book that I could find even came close to that.

So what’s the lesson there? Could be a lot of things, but I think you have to acknowledge Grimm’s appeal. What does Grimm do well? One thing that, I suspect, rings true is that these particular stories believe in good and evil. I know that’s not fashionable, but it’s true. Let me give one example.

I doesn’t get much starker than in “The Juniper Tree.” The villain, a stepmother who craves her husband’s property for her daughter instead of the dead wife’s son, allows what the story calls an “evil” thought to overpower her and cuts the boy’s head off. As if that’s not bad enough, she manages to get her daughter (whom she presumably loves less than her own skin) to think she (the daughter) killed the boy. Then she cooks the boy in a stew, which the unwitting, good-hearted father devours with a rare appetite.

So this is evil—sharp, well-defined evil. Far-fetched? A little, maybe. But I’ve seen the evening news. Enough said.

Unlike in normal life, this evil stepmother is going to get hers—and how. That’s one thing you know, when you’re reading Grimm. You see all this unfolding with horror and, even though it’s understated, it’s potent. But you know it’s somehow coming out well in the end. And it does.

The sister, poor thing, weeping and hysterical, takes the boy’s bones (removed from the empty stewpot by the stepmother) and buries them under the boy’s dead mother’s favorite juniper tree. Something magical happens—you guessed that, right?—and the boy’s bones vanish, a bird appears, and it flies away and sings a beautiful song, earning itself three strange objects. At least, so the characters in the story think, though the song lyrics are terrible. “My mother murdered me, my father ate of me …”

I won’t go through the whole thing. Cut to the happy ending: the father gets a beautiful gold necklace, the sister gets a beautiful pair of shoes, and the stepmother gets a millstone on her head. The bird goes back to being the boy. The end.

There’s even a little more on this line, but that’s enough to give the gist.

Now, picking up a modern fairy tale, or a modern retelling of a fairy tale, or a modern fantasy novel (or many other kinds of novels), off the shelf, you don’t know two things going in: (1) if there’s going to be a real villain, who’s understandable but still wicked in the old sense of “bad,” “not good”; and (2) if there’s going to be a “happy ending,” in the sense that bad people will get punished and good ones will win through. Actually there’s a third: you don’t know if there’s going to be anybody that’s “good” in the story either; I mean, a hero you can want to live through it and thrive.

Picking up Grimm, you can basically assume (1) and (2) at least, and usually you’ll get (3) into the bargain. These aren’t religious stories; they aren’t “Christian,” for instance. But they are profoundly moral: they believe in right and wrong. And part of the satisfying nature of them is this “right and wrong,” good and evil, punishment and reward, quality.

Could it be that people are reading Grimm because they, too, believe in good and evil, punishment and reward? Seems likely. Crime shows are among the very most popular on television—especially the ones that believe in punishments for evildoers, and vindication for victims. They too are profoundly moral. You might not agree with all of their morals, but they are moral in that sense.

Whereas what could be more disappointing than spending hours reading a thick fantasy novel and finding, at the end, that (1) there wasn’t really any bad guy; or (2) the bad guy wasn’t at all believable; or (3) there wasn’t any character with a shred of integrity or loyalty (they were all bad guys); or (4) there wasn’t a good, satisfying outcome (nobody who deserved it got punished, or won the day)? Grimm will give you most or all of those in just about every three-to-five page story. That translates to hours of satisfying reading.

But, so this won’t get lost in the middle, I want to re-emphasize two points about Grimm. One is that few if any of the heroes are “good” in the sense of being perfect or untouchably moral. Some are tricksters, clever, almost swindlers. Some are just loyal to somebody—a small kind of “goodness” that, however, is very powerful in life. The second point is that the thrill of the stories seems to derive at least partly from how the magic will be involved—sometimes on the dark side, sometimes on the light side, sometimes on both. Strange to say, I can feel my pulse rise even though I know the thing’s going to come out right. Maybe that shows how na├»ve I am—me and thousands of others.

Monday, January 9, 2012

J.R.R. Tolkien as Enchanted Piper


On Fairy Stories
I recently reread Tolkien’s famous, influential essay “On Fairy Stories.” I initially read this when I was a young writer, still very much learning the craft. At the time, I had written little if any fantasy, though I had tried my hand at science fiction twice. I came to Tolkien late in life, reading The Lord of the Rings in my college years, even before (immediately before, in fact) I had read The Hobbit. To this day, I have a hard time reading The Hobbit as anything other than a child-friendly prequel to the more profound, more potent, more serious fantasy I read first.

But Tolkien’s essay came to my attention somehow, I forget how, and I checked it out of the library in some volume or other and read it. (You can read it now online; though I would recommend printing it first. Here’s a pdf. If you’re daunted by the length or style of the essay, here are some highlights).

At the time, I took some strange courage from Tolkien’s essay. I read it as an invitation to the delights of the faerie realm, and I wanted to go—and chose to embark, not just as a reader or hearer, but also a writer. What a long, perilous road I was letting myself in for. It turned out that Tolkien was correct on many fronts: real “fantasy” is difficult and easily botched. It is, he claims, the highest form of literary artistry, because it’s the most demanding, using the “Imagination” to the fullest, and must work harder than most other literary types to create or maintain an inner sense of reality within the story.

But I didn’t recall any of those warnings until I picked the essay up recently to reread it. What I remembered in my rash youth, what lodged itself in my mind and inspired me back then, was Tolkien’s concept that fairy stories are created by dipping into a great cauldron or “pot,” into which many story elements have been dropped over countless generations of storytellers. The creator (or, as he calls it, the “sub-creator”) of a fairy story selects elements from this “pot,” mingling them also with elements from his/her own world or his/her own imagination, to create his/her tale.

Sounds simple, right? The trouble is—or perhaps I should say: the challenge is that the storyteller has to have mastery of two realms, in effect. The first is what Tolkien calls “faerie,” and is as elusive as an elf in the woods. It’s something that you absorb only by reading and imaginatively entering the fairy stories that have been handed down. Put another way, you have to know what’s in the pot, and how what’s in there can be used. What its purpose is, its value, or—to use a nice, old, fey sort of word—its “virtue.” Think of it this way: when you open your imagination out into “faerie” you need to know when you’ve crossed into the “other world,” and what you might expect to find there—even if you turn out to be wrong on both counts, as you usually are.

The other realm is what Tolkien calls “the Primary World,” the one we live in and work in. This one sounds easy, but it isn’t. It can be almost as elusive as the other, because what fairy stories do, says Tolkien, is enable us to “recover” awareness of, perception of, things and qualities (or “adjectives”)—for example, a mountain and the color “green.” The creator of a successful fairy story in effect shows back or reawakens for the reader the world in which he or she lives. Needless to say, it is no small task looking at the world in which we live—that we take for granted—with fresh eyes, and then reflecting it back to a reader in a meaningful way, while telling a good, compelling story that also—by the way—intersects with “faerie,” drawing from a vast, bubbling pot of fairy tale elements only what is most apt for the new story—and not misusing anything in the process.

Haply, I missed the note of absurd difficulty and plunged in.

Maybe I was drawn by an enchanted piper. Who can say? For Tolkien was himself “enchanted” in that sense, that he’d caught the melody of some elvish lay on the air and felt compelled to share his own poor transcriptions of the poetry he heard, like old Bilbo translating elvish tales into the common tongue.

NOTE: This is the first of three posts on Tolkien's essay. Check out the second and the third.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Beautiful Grimm Illustrations

One of my favorite blogs, Brain Pickings, recently highlighted this illustrated volume, The Fairy Tales of the Brother Grimm (ed. by Noel Daniel). It features some classic artwork, which you can sample here:

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2011/09/28/brothers-grimm-fairy-tales-taschen/

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Do people still read fairy tales?


As far as I can tell with the blunt instruments of Amazon.com’s sales rankings and Barnes&Noble.com’s sales rankings, Grimm’s fairy tales are still outselling most modern fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen’s tales also do respectably well. Other fairy tale collections (by lesser-known figures), not so much. Modern retellings and original tales in the fairy tale tradition, anthologized by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (several volumes now), also do respectably well, especially Snow White, Blood Red. But they still don’t match Grimm.

I have no idea (a) why Grimm is the juggernaut; and (b) whether people read these stories once they’ve bought them. But the sales suggest that a lot of people do. They want to own them, often in nice-looking volumes. I for one have (somehow) three editions of Grimm on the self, and one of Andersen. Plus some other things, still not nearly enough. (Tolkien writes about Lang’s 12-volume collection and I salivate.)

That proves, I guess, that people do like to read fairy stories, even when they’re new ones being written today. But, unless my research was fundamentally flawed (which is likely, given how late at night I did it, among other things), they prefer them older than newer, all things being equal.

That somehow doesn’t seem at all wrong, does it? Andersen’s tales, by the way, were his own invention. But now that they’ve been around so long—and are so good—they pass into the status of tradition. And Grimm seems to capture that sense of tradition more than others. That collection, too, is the least sanitized for children. But that’s for another post.

Meanwhile, novels with a basis (or at least a hook) in fairy tales or mythic traditions were in Amazon’s top 100 book-list for week one of January 2012. Three of them, in fact (and this is not a recommendation, since I haven’t read any of these):
#34: Switched, by Amanda Hocking (a changeling story)
#41: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht (folktale and fairy tale motifs) 41
#72: The Son of Neptune, by Rick Riordan (middle grade, drawing on myth and fable)

Whether they still read the old tales or not, lots of readers seem to be craving novels grounded in folktales and fairy tales.

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