Archives for posts with tag: Fairy Tales

This week I’m recommending a book published for Young Adults – `Forest Born’ by Shannon Hale (2010). Nowadays there is a huge amount of Young Adult Fantasy written about and for, and occasionally by, teenage girls. People who aren’t inclined to be young or female often avoid this type of fiction as if it was a sparkly pink plague, which means that they sometimes miss out on a good book. `Forest Born’ does feature a teenage heroine but it’s a novel worth reading whatever your current age or gender. Available in paperback or as an ebook, `Forest Born’ is the fourth of Hale’s `Books of Bayern’. The series began with `The Goose Girl’, which was inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tale of the same name  (see also my recent post on `Thorn’) and continued with `Enna Burning’ and `River Secrets’. Each of the `Books of Bayern’  is a complete story centred on a different viewpoint character, so there is no need to have read the other three before trying `Forest Born’.

In the great Forest of Bayern lives a girl with six brothers. Rinna (Rin) Agget loves her forest-home and feels a strong affinity with its trees. She helps to look after the whole Agget clan and is her mother’s favourite child but Rin has a secret. Sometimes she can make people do things they don’t want to do. Convinced that she has a `bad core’ and that even the trees have turned against her, Rin is desperate to leave home before her family discover what she is really like. She cannot confess her fears even to her favourite brother, Razo, but he and his foreign girlfriend, Dasha, can see how unhappy Rin is. They take her back with them to Bayern’s capital city. Razo was once just a shepherd but he became a loyal friend to a Goose Girl who turned out to be a princess in disguise. Now the Goose Girl, Isi, is married to King Geric of Bayern and Razo belongs to the elite regiment known as Bayern’s Own.

Razo gets his sister a job in the palace helping to look after Geric and Isi’s young son. Rin adores the little prince and comes to admire the gentle queen but Bayern and its royal family are under threat. Villages near the border with Kel have been burned and when Geric goes to investigate he and his men are attacked by fire-speakers – men or women who can summon fire and use it to maim and kill. Queen Isi, who is a wind-speaker, is determined to find out who has trained these fire-speakers and ordered them to destroy Bayern. On her secret mission she takes her friend Enna, who is a very powerful fire-speaker, and Dasha, who is a water-speaker. Rin yearns to be like these `fearless women’ and runs away to join them. When they encounter a formidable enemy from Isi’s past, Rin must choose between using the powers she hates or losing the people she loves.

Acting on a hint in the original `Goose Girl’ story about the princess being able to summon a wind to do her bidding, Hale has created a mythical Golden Age in which all beings and elements of the universe could communicate with each other in the divine language. By Rin’s time, that age is long past but there are still people born with the gifts of people-speaking, animal-speaking or nature-speaking. Nature-speakers like Isi, Enna and Dasha can communicate with forces such as a air, fire and water and wield them as weapons. Hale has worked out the details of this well, but superficially nature-speaking sounds like one of those convenient powers that people acquire in Fantasy role-playing games. What makes Hale’s treatment of these powers stand out is the sensitive way she describes the drawbacks and long-term emotional effects of using this kind of magic. Enna, for example, has never recovered from the horror of having to use her fire-speaking to destroy an invading army. Isi, Enna and Dasha`balance’ their power by learning each other’s magical languages. It’s a lesson in avoiding extremism by following more than one path.

Another distinctive feature of the `Books of Bayern’ is that people-speaking is presented as by far the most dangerous and corrupting gift to have. People-speakers can make other people `listen to them, and believe them, and love them’. In `Forest Born’ the consequences of this are shown to be toxic. A people-speaker who is obsessed with gaining power ruthlessly manipulates her followers into doing terrible things for her unworthy cause. It is all too easy to think of contemporary parallels. This novel is honest about how difficult it can be to help victims of such brain-washing to recover from it. No wonder poor Rin is horrified by the idea that she might be a people-speaker. She is overcome by the kind of self-loathing that so many teenage girls now seem to suffer from. Fortunately Rin has the three women she thinks of as the `fire sisters’ – Isi, Enna and Dasha – to hearten and inspire her. This is a book in which there are lots of interesting conversations between women which aren’t about men.

The novel also contains plenty of action and suspense but essentially `Forest Born’ is about the inner life of  a young woman who wants to be a heroine but fears she’s a villainess. Rin wonders if everyone secretly feels lost and like a stranger in their own home. It’s a state of mind which many people will be familiar with. Rin thinks she’s only `half a girl’ in comparison to brave Isi, Enna and Dasha but the `fire sisters’ are far from invincible. Discovering their vulnerabilities in a crisis helps Rin to accept her own weaknesses and to build on her strengths. When talking about storytelling, Queen Isi says that `in order to see the story it has to be a bit removed from what is actually real’. Hale’s story of magical gifts gives a clear picture of some dangerous psychological states and the strength of will needed to overcome them. Teenagers can be fascinating to read (and write) about because their characters are still being formed, or deformed, by internal and external pressures. Everything is still to play for, so please don’t reject a novel simply because it’s about a teenage girl. Until next time….




This week I’m recommending another collection of Fantasy stories which offers new interpretations of traditional tales. `Toad Words and Other Stories’ by T.Kingfisher contains seven short stories, one novella and three poems. Most of these items have appeared elsewhere but the novella is original to this collection, which came out in 2014. T.Kingfisher is a pen-name for American writer and illustrator, Ursula Vernon. She is one of a growing number of professional writers who are choosing to self-publish their work as ebooks, so there is no print version of this one. Don’t be put off by the self-published bit, even if the author has called her imprint Red Wombat Tea Company.

Kingfisher begins her introduction by confessing that she didn’t think she was capable of `doing something so disciplined’ as writing short stories. She was wrong. Her imagination may be wild but Kingfisher uses language with precision and elegance. While reading `Toad Words’, I frequently found myself highlighting sharply expressed truths, such as, `But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers.’ One of the most charming stories in this collection, `Night ‘, should probably be classified as metaphysical Science Fiction; the remainder comfortably count as Fantasy. They shed a fresh, and sometimes disconcerting, light on famous works of Fantasy such as Peter Pan (`Never’) and `The Little Mermaid’ (`The Sea Witch Sets The Record Straight’) or on Folk Tales (`Toad Words’, `The Wolf and the Woodsman’, `Bluebeard’s Wife’, `Boar & Apples’) and traditional Ballads (`Loathly’).

One of the poems includes the lines, `Fairy tales are human things which we have chewed over since before we could eat solid food.’ Kingfisher has clearly chewed over them more than most and she delights in asking unexpected questions about Fairy Tale characters, such as what happened to the `bad’ sister condemned to have frogs and toads drop from her mouth whenever she spoke? In `Toad Words’ the delightful answer is that she learns to distinguish between toad words, such as desiccated, obligation and matchstick, and frog words, such as purple, murky and squill, and to use them creatively to save rare amphibians. As someone with a particular fondness for amphibians (my garden is full of them) I adored this story. It’s a good example of the author’s wit and dry humour.

Kingfisher also asks pertinent questions such as, `What  might have happened if wife-killer Bluebeard finally married a woman who did feel that her husband’s privacy was more important than her own curiosity?’ and `Why was Red Riding Hood’s grandmother living in the middle of a deep dark wood, and who should you be more wary of – a shy wild animal or an angry, axe-wielding woodman?’  Kingfisher’s take on `Little Red Riding Hood’ is full of funny lines but is just as brutal as the original story. In this version, the grandmother is being stalked by a creepy admirer determined to force her into an abusive relationship. In several of the stories, Kingfisher writes angrily about the sufferings inflicted on women whose only power is their inner strength. `Loathly’ is an almost unbearably sad tale of a woman who has become a monster through no fault of her own. For her, as in real life, marriage to a handsome prince does not automatically make for a happy ending. In `Never’, Kingfisher focuses on the horrors that might happen when a young girl lured to Neverland by Peter Pan has the temerity to grow up. She chooses to bring out the very dark side of Peter Pan, which is definitely there in Barrie’s work (see my August 2014 post on `Peter and Wendy’) but her interpretation of the famous crocodile is original and nastily convincing.

Several of the stories in `Toad Words’ can be seen as reactions against the Disneyfication of Fairy Tales. If you only know the Sea-Witch from the Disney film of `The Little Mermaid’, you’ll be surprised by the motives she reveals in `The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight’. This shrewd, unsentimental but compassionate witch sees all too clearly that the dim-witted mermaid will never attract the prince she has set her heart on. I found the ending to this story more moving than the one in Hans Christian Anderson’s original version. `Boar & Apples’ sounds like a recipe but this novella contains Kingfisher’s interpretation of `Snow White’. She has fun with references to Snow White’s famous costume in the classic Disney film – `The seamstress had always had a great desire to sew something with puffed sleeves, and the fact that Snow stared at them with great astonishment and mild indignation did nothing to diminish her moment of glory.’

Kingfisher also does full justice to the bleak and cruel aspects of the tale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm (see my May 2014 post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’). As in my own story,`Iron Shoes’,  the Queen is Snow’s real mother but after that the two versions diverge. Kingfisher warns her readers not to waste sympathy on this murderous Queen. The magic mirror does `not have to seduce her with words or visions; she came essentially pre-seduced.’ The Queen orders a Huntsman to kill her teenage daughter, Snow, and bring back her heart. Since this isn’t the kind of Feminist Fantasy in which all the male characters are villains or wimps, he does no such thing. The Huntsman leaves Snow in the forest. What are you more likely to find in forests, dwarves or wild boar? So, seven talking pigs it is then. After this surprise, you realize that the story is going in an unexpected direction. Can her experiences in the forest help this practical princess to survive the inevitable confrontation with her jealous mother? Read `Toad Words and Other Stories’ to find out. Self-publication under a new name has allowed Ursula Vernon to escape from being pigeon-holed as an author and illustrator of cosy children’s books and write for adults about `hard, ugly, things.’ I hope that other authors will follow her brave lead. Until two weeks time…



I’ve recently seen `The Selfish Giant’, a British film about excluded children by Clio Barnard. Set in a junkyard, this grim but moving film is very loosely based on a short story by the brilliant Anglo-Irish author, Oscar Wilde. He may now be most famous for the tragic end to his dazzling career but Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (to give him his splendid full name) remains a very entertaining writer. This week I’m recommending his distinctive fairy tales. Wilde published two short collections of these `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ , which came out in 1888, and `A House of Pomegranates’ which followed in 1891. Inexpensive editions of `The Happy Prince’, with pretty illustrations by Charles Robinson, are quite easy to find. `A House of Pomegranates’ is much more scarce and some editions cost thousands of pounds, but don’t worry, you can download all the stories for free via Project Gutenberg or get them in a cheap ebook or POD paperback called `The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde’. Alternatively, go for `The Complete Short Stories of Oscar Wilde’ published by Oxford World Classics, which has the bonus of including his charming ghost-story `The Canterville Ghost’.

Wilde’s fairy tales are sometimes referred to as his `children’s stories’ but that only applies to the first of the two collections, and even then the cynical humour of some of the these pieces is more likely to appeal to adults than children. `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ contains five stories. The best known are `The Happy Prince’ and `The Selfish Giant’ which both deal with that quality which is sometimes translated as Charity and sometimes as Love. In `The Happy Prince’, a ghost trapped in a golden statue weeps for `all the ugliness and all the misery’ he can now see in the city he once ruled. `The Selfish Giant’ is a about a giant who only finds happiness when he shares his beautiful garden with children and it is the most overtly Christian of all Wilde’s stories. `The Devoted Friend’, which is told by a Linnet to a selfish Water-Rat, is almost a negative version of `The Selfish Giant’. It describes a rich miller who cruelly exploits a poor friend and fails to mend his means ways. The Water-Rat is outraged to learn that this story has a moral which he is expected to apply to his own life. `Well, really,’ he says, “I think you should have told me that before you began. If you had done so, I certainly would not have listened to you.” `The Remarkable Rocket’ features a firework who has the unshakable delusion that the whole world revolves around him, while `The Nightingale and the Rose’ tells of a bird who chooses to make a terrible sacrifice to help a young lover.

`A House of Pomegranates’ , which Wilde dedicated to his long-suffering wife, Constance, consists of four longer tales written in a lush and poetic style. In an impressive piece of name-dropping each individual story has a dedication to a particular royal or aristocratic lady. I’d like to know what the Ranee of Sarawak made of the story of `The Young King’, in which a ruler on the eve of his coronation learns about the true cost of the royal treasures he adores. `The Birthday of the Infanta’ is like a Velasquez picture come to life and centres on an ugly court dwarf who falls in love with a princess. It is one of the saddest stories ever written. `The Fisherman and his Soul’ is about a young fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and is willing to give up everything to be with her, while `The Star Child’ is the story of a beautiful boy who cruelly rejects his true mother but eventually redeems himself.

Wilde’s melancholy tales have a lot in common with the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’).  Both authors turn animals, plants and even objects into memorable speaking characters and both rarely give their stories conventional happy endings. In `The Star Child’ for example, the hopeful mood is shattered in the last sentence. Wilde is  less influenced by traditional folk-tales than Andersen and his prose is more polished. As you would expect from the author of comic masterpieces such as `The Importance of Being Earnest’, there is a lot of sharp humour in Wilde’s fairy tales, which saves them from being too sentimental for modern readers. Then there are his gorgeous evocative descriptions, whether he is writing about palaces or forests (see `The Birthday of the Infanta). In `The Happy Prince’, Wilde satirizes the selfish and heartless behaviour of the ruling classes in short snatches of dialogue, which contrast with the long lyrical speeches of the little swallow who is the Prince’s companion as he describes his winter-home in Egypt – `In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles look lazily about  them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them…’ The Prince believes that the marvels of Egypt are as nothing compared to the mystery of human suffering and sends the swallow out into the cruel city where he sees `the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets’. `The Happy Prince’ is a story I loved as a child and I still can’t read it without crying – I know because I was in tears last night when I re-read it before writing this post.

One of the most appealing things about Wilde is that he had the mind of a cynic and the heart of romantic. He was a famous admirer of beauty in art but his social conscience made him deeply uneasy about the exploitation of the workers who created beautiful objects for the rich. These contradictions in his nature come out clearly in his fairy tales. Most of the tales are about beauty or love but Wilde knew from bitter experience that beauty and goodness don’t always go together and that people with loving hearts don’t always find happiness in this world. You don’t have to know anything about Wilde’s life to appreciate his writing, but if you do it gives the stories an extra layer of meaning. It becomes hard not to see `The Fisherman and his Soul’ as a plea for tolerance of `forbidden love’. Within the story, the forbidden love is between the Christian and human fisherman and what his priest calls one of `the vile and pagan things God suffers to wander through His world’. The fisherman gives up his soul to be with his mermaid. Then, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the soul who tries to tempt the fisherman from the path of true love with offers of worldly riches and power. If, like Wilde’s Water-Rat, you can’t stand a story with a moral, ignore this aspect and just enjoy the exotic cities which the soul visits during its wanderings, with their gates of red bronze carved with sea-dragons, bazaars strung with paper lanterns that flutter like butterflies and gardens of tulip-trees where peacocks spread their tails to the sun. Wilde’s is an imaginative world worth lingering in. Until next week…