The first volume of Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab’s Tales From the Tower duet sets out to accomplish a feat undertaken by many contemporary fantasy authors: to understand and to harness the fairy tale genre. May it be in tone, moral, or a harkening to the deceptive simplicity of childhood, the qualities of the fairy tale are today as alluring as they were in the centuries of their conception. This begs the question why—what can these stories do for us as adults, in our current age? Carmody explores the concept in an introduction to the volume that I found perhaps more engaging than the stories themselves. She and her co-editor set out, not to modernize these tales, or to imbibe them with modern morality, but to capture their aesthetic in retelling, to exploit their “mystery and dangerous sensuality.”
The first volume includes stories from authors Margo Lanagan, Rosie Borella, Richard Harland, Margaret Mahy, Martine Murray, and editor Isobelle Carmody herself—a number that allows each story room to breath. Each retelling contains different themes and they are unique from one another and from the project at hand. This gives the anthology diversity and interest, though it does, in my case, lend itself to some pretty disparate opinions from story to story. The afterwards included after each story became, in addition to explanations, testaments to the stories’ inability to stand on their own. Also, my two favorites were placed at the end of the volume, which made my reading of the others incredibly sluggish. The anthology did not ultimately live up to the goals it set forth in its introduction.
Borella’s “Eternity” irked me in particular. The story modernizes and moralizes Grimms’ “Snow Queen” tale, a piece rife with urban fantasy potential. What we get, however, is the “snow girl,” a frigid and beautiful bitch, competing (romantically, and even on the dance floor) with the virginal girl-next-door. The protagonist travels through an urban landscape to retrieve her friend, meeting stereotypical guides along the way (including a transsexual woman, fulfilling the magical queer trope). Add to this a preachy anti-drug message, and the story presents a boring, childish sermon. While most of her choices do follow logically from the original text, these authors had free reign to change as much or as little as they liked; the choice to explore this coarse, predictable morality tale seems very much intentional.
Harland’s “Heart of the Beast” and editor Carmody’s “Moth’s Tale” took similar routes to preserve their chosen stories’ more annoying aspects. The former, based on “Beauty and the Beast,” retains the unsettling elements of Stockholm syndrome and the “fixer” wife; Beauty is resilient and strong in spite of the patriarchs in her life, but she is still rewarded with a husband by the end. The latter, a retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin,” gives its protagonist great compassion and magic, but leaves her only marginally less passive than the original; in some ways, she takes control of her fate, but she remains selfless and flawless throughout. But I don’t dislike these stories because they’re anti-feminist (though that plays a role)—I’m frustrated by their happy endings and lack of nuance. This anthology offered an amazing opportunity for complication and analysis, but these authors just didn’t bite.
The anthology’s last story, “One Window,” by Martine Murray, finds its basis—though perhaps more loosely than in previous stories—in Anderson’s “Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The crippled but optimistic soldier is made flesh—a child, whose peers are made to fight in what seems to be gladiatorial-style battles. The young boys live confined in a tower, squabbling and fighting as children do, offering one another comfort and kindness, and quaking in fear at their captors. The “tin soldier” finds solace in the sight of a beautiful young girl he spies from his window, and it is the hope he gains from her that pushes him into action against the man that holds them in the tower. This story works for a number of reasons: it is a departure from its origin story, it references a larger, more complex world, and it develops character relationships beyond their archetypes. It was, at last, the dark, mysterious story that the book’s introduction has promised. Perhaps the second volume of Tales from the Tower will continue this upward slope.
As a whole, I found The Wilful Eye as intriguing as I did boring, and liked as many of its stories as I disliked. It was a noble effort but weak in its follow-through. Since the prose itself isn’t particularly wanting, I wonder if perhaps a more unifying theme might have tied the stories together and inspired the authors to something greater than simple retellings. Fervent fans of the original fairy tales, however, may well have a better time with this anthology than I did.
The Wilful Eye is available now from Allen & Unwin.
Emily Nordling likes good books, bad TV, and superior tea.