14 January 2009

A grim time for tales?

It seems that in some quarters of the world fairytales are getting the cold shoulder.

This is bad news indeed for poor cinders and red riding hood et al. We have mentioned before the Gift of Reading Project and its hard-hitting campaign to keep our favourite characters alive.

I confess that Hansel and Gretel used to freak this Onion out, with the Stepmother's multiple abandonment attempts, the chicken bone-finger substitute and the oven big enough to bake children*. But it was Sleeping Beauty who caused the nightmares. My grandmother was an accomplished wool-spinner and she was keen for us to keep the craft alive so we had spinning wheels in the house, and I had a recurring nightmare about pricking my finger and falling into a death sleep - with no prince in sight to save me...

As an older reader, the only book that scared me enough to need to leave the light on (at age 16) was Stephen King's The Shining. But did it turn me away from reading? Oh, no it did not. As soon as I finished I quickstixed to the library to borrow the next Stephen King. I chose Salem's Lot - hello vampires!

But back to fairytales. Stepmothers get plenty of poor press in traditional fairytales, and with so many blended families in the world maybe it's understandable that we are shying away from stories that promote the idea of stepmothers being wicked.

Actually, the press isn't much chop for any women in fairytales - which is perhaps why authors are inspired to revisit fairytales and tinker with the original versions. I remember being much enamoured of Angela Carter's wonderfully racy feminist re-tellings in The Bloody Chamber.

More recently, of course, we were swept away by Margo Lanagan's achingly brilliant Tender Morsels which draws on Snow White and Rose Red for it's inspiration.

And Ms Rowling has reminded us that fairytales still have the power to enchant. For those who aren't up to speed, The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the wizarding world equivalent of the tales of those Brothers Grimm.

Indeed we suspect that rumours of the death of the fairytale are greatly exaggerated. So, helpfully, with his poem Instructions in M is for Magic, the marvellous Neil Gaiman has been kind enough to offer this sage advice should ever we find ourselves landed in the mysterious world of fairytale. Enjoy.

* And I was reading the tame version, not The Goosle, Margo's re-telling that caused a bit of kiff and koff which she affectionately refers to as Gooslegate.


Penni Russon said...

As a YA writer, people often ask me what I read as a YA, and the answer is fairy tales. I did read what might be called YA, but I really read them more at the tweenie stage. As a 12-18 year old, I loved fairy tales, both the originals and retellings. They fed my appetite for ideas and philosophy as well as comforting me with the capacity to regress.

Fairytales have to be hard on mothers. It's kind of the point of them, enacting separation from the maternal figure and establishment of healthy separation of the subject. Or something.

Having said that, I retold Rapunzel to Fred and in my version it is Rapunzel's mother who saves Rapunzel from the tower. I was amazed at how satisfying Fred found the story, for the under sixes there is a romance in the bond between mother and daughter that is more persuasive and alluring than the idea of loving any old prince.

Jellyfish said...

I never liked fairytales very much as a kid. I remember thinking they were full of selfish and/or stupid people who made really obvious mistakes.

And I hated how kids like Tom Thumb, Thumbelina and the Gingerbread Man were such little pricks to their parents. And bad people were just pointlessly bad for no reason and the girls were almost always twitty and helpless. The first time I took any real interest was when I read the Roald Dahl take on the stories and I was like 'OMG ROFL' (or whatever the equivalent was back in the dark ages of Grade 2).

So for me, I think the best reason for kids to be familiar with fairytales is so they can then experience all the brilliant ways that the traditional stories have been messed around with, everything from 'Princess Smartypants' to 'Shrek' - it's such a great way for them to learn how you can manipulate a narrative and characters.

oh - thanks for linking to those creepy 'gift of reading' posters - they're amazing!

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite books when I was a kid was 'The Ordinay Princess', where the grumpy fairy who isn't invited to the christening gives the gift of 'ordinaryness'. Of course that turns out to be a blessing (think running barefoot in the woods and turning brown as a berry). It was still a fairytale, but better...
Loved it.

Penni Russon said...

thaliak, I loved that one too. And Kate Crackernuts, because it was about step-sisters who just really like each other. There's not many stories about sisters, especially ones who like each other.

My oldest daughter loves Hansel and Gretel, and I love reading it to her. I love how subversive it is. And in the version we have it's not even the stepmother. It's the REAL mother who abandons her kids.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Penni - just read Kate Crackernuts online. I see what you mean about the sisters liking each other. Unusual but good. Also liked the way the well sister marries the sick prince and the sick sister marries the well prince . :)

Keith Stevenson said...

Hi Onioners
I just thought you might like to know that Margo Lanagan is reading one of her new stories on the Terra Incognita Australian Speculative Fiction podcast (www.tisf.com.au). The direct link to Margo's podcast is here http://www.keithstevenson.com/terraincognitasf/tisf019.html

It's a story based on her next novel.