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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Two Visions of Transformation: Riquet with the Tuft

For the most part, the French salon fairy tale writers all knew each other, at least casually, and all worked from more or less the same sources: oral tales heard in childhood, classical mythology, and collections of Italian fairy tales, in particular Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentameron and Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. So it is not surprising that many of their tales end up sharing some, shall we say, strong similarities, and in some cases nearly identical plots—or even, as with Beauty and the Beast, abridgements of another author’s original tale. What can be surprising is how and why these tales differ—as a look at two French versions of “Riquet with the Tuft” show.

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Fairy Tales and Trauma: Kate Forsyth’s The Wild Girl

No story was just a story, though. It was a suitcase stuffed with secrets.

One of the more enigmatic figures in the history of fairy tales is Dortchen Wild, the woman who told Wilhelm Grimm many of the most brutal tales he collected in Household Tales, and who later—much later—married him. In her novel The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth pulls from history and fairy tale to try to reconstruct Dorchen’s life.

Most of the novel is told in a lengthy flashback, explaining exactly how lovers Dortchen and Wilhelm found themselves desperately in love but unable to be together as the novel started, in 1814—right after her father’s death, and shortly after Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm had published their first, scholarly edition of Household Tales. Forsyth’s answer can be more or less summed up by “money” and “trauma,” though, as in so many fairy tales, the answer is more complicated than this.

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Hubris and Poetry: The Fisherman and His Wife

Sometimes, you’re just trying to fish a little to get by and bring home some food to your hovel. And sometimes, you pull up a magic fish, and find your life transformed—for a little while, anyway.

The Grimm brothers published The Fisherman and His Wife in 1812, in their first volume of their first edition of Household Tales. They noted that the tale was particularly popular in Hesse, told with several variations, sometimes with doggerel rhymes, and sometimes in prose, without any rhymes—versions, they sniffed, that were rather lesser as a result. Their version, therefore, included the rhymes, which has led to numerous differences in translations. Some translators decided to leave out the rhymes entirely; some decided to go for a straightforward, non-rhyming English translation, and some decided to try for English rhymes. This leads to something like this:

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An Animated Superfamily: The Incredibles

After five massively successful films, John Lasseter thought it was about time to try something different. First, for once Pixar would create a film that would focus on humans instead of toys, bugs, monsters or fish. Superpowered humans, to keep things interesting. And second, instead of hiring a director from within Pixar’s ranks, he would hire an outsider, one of his former classmates, Brad Bird.

By 2000, director Brad Bird could have served as the poster child for broken dreams in Hollywood. Again and again he had seen projects approved by Hollywood executives, only to have those approvals rescinded by Hollywood executives—often the exact same Hollywood executives. In 1995 he thought he finally had his break, when Warner Bros hired him to direct the animated feature The Iron Giant. The film, released in 1999, received nearly universal critical praise, but bombed at the box office, earning only $31.3 million against a reported $80 million budget (less than the rival Disney, Pixar and upcoming Dreamworks pictures produced at the same time). Bird figured his career was over.

Until he reconnected with John Lasseter.

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Enchantment and Distrust: Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier’s The Discreet Princess

It perhaps says something that one of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Mademoiselle Marie-Jeanne L’Heritier de Villandon (1664-1734), at least on the surface, was just how unremarkable it was. While most of her fellow French salon writers of fairy tales and novels alike were busy conducting scandalous affairs, travelling throughout Europe, dabbling in intrigue, entering and escaping dire marriages, and finding themselves exiled from the court of the none-too-tolerant Louis XIV, and often Paris itself, L’Heritier lived a comparatively quiet and, apparently, chaste life—if one that still had a touch of magic.

The niece of fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, daughter of a historian, and sister of a poet, she met and befriended several fairy tale writers in the salons of Paris, and was inspired to write tales of her own. Her talent and erudition eventually earned her a patron, the wealthy Marie d’Orleans-Longueville, Duchess of Nemours, which eventually turned into a small annuity after the Duchess’ death. Equally important was a friendship with the formidable and controversial Madeleine de Scudery, these days renowned as the probable writer of Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus, one of the longest novels ever published, but at the time noted for her scholarship and fierce defense of women’s education. De Scudery not only befriended the considerably younger woman (De Scudery was born in 1607) but left the fairy tale writer her salon at her death in 1701.

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Enchantment, Death, and Footwear: The Twelve Dancing Princesses

Imagine, for a moment, that night after night you are doomed to trace a long spiraling staircase deep within the earth. Once at its base, your travels are still not done: you must walk though glittering “woods”—not living trees, but creations of bright gems and metals—and sail across an underground lake, where, on the other side, you must dance and dance and dance, until near dawn, when you can finally return to your own bedchamber and collapse next to your sisters, your shoes in tatters. Fortunately, you are a princess, with seemingly no responsibilities, who can sleep until noon if not later, and equally fortunately you have the money to buy new shoes every day—and cobblers apparently eager to make them. Still, this never varies, night after night.

Would you try to fight this enchantment, or casually arrange for the deaths of the princes who came to save you?

In the version collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their 1812 Household Tales, the princesses choose the second.

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Abandoned Children and Wish Fulfillment: Hansel and Gretel

Folklore and fairy tales are riddled with tales of child abandonment: purposeful and accidental, peasant and royal, orphaned and unorphaned alike, nearly every child in a fairy tale spends at least some time alone. Some stories, indeed, focus on that abandonment, and the lengths that children must go to in order to survive, particularly if not discovered by unusually friendly dwarves or bands of thieves. Including “Hansel and Gretel”: on its surface, an adorable story of an adorable boy and adorable girl (they’re in a fairy tale) who just happen to find a gingerbread house in the woods. Nothing could be cuter.

Well, if you ignore all the starvation and the murder.

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Memory, Fairy Tale, and the Holocaust: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose

By their very name, fairy tales seem to be something apart—stories that happen in a place of other, that promise happy endings to even the most hopeless situations. And yet, the great fairy tales, even in their most sanitized versions, have always told of humanity’s worst traits: inequality, deceit, ambition, jealousy, abuse, and murder. And the great fairy tale writers have in turn used their tales as social and economic criticism, subversive works that for all their focus on the unreal, contain horror that is all too real.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, to find a book that uses a fairy tale to illustrate the horrors of the Holocaust. Or that the fairy tale fits that history so well.

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Fish Parenting and Disability: Finding Nemo

“Fish are friends, not food!”

Before we get into this post, I must make a quick confession: of all of the Pixar films, this is probably the one I resent the most. Not because of anything actually in the film, I must say, but because of what has happened to aquaria since the film’s release: Hordes of little children squeaking “NEMO NEMO NEMO LOOK IT’S NEMO” even when the clownfish in question are OBVIOUSLY NOT NEMO SINCE THEIR FINS ARE PERFECTLY FINE SOMETHING YOU MIGHT HAVE NOTICED, KIDS, IF YOU WEREN’T SO BUSY SQUEAKING “NEMO!”

And that’s before we get into what this film did to one of the Epcot rides.

And with that out of my system, onto Finding Nemo.

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Fairy Tales, Forward and Reverse: Marilyn Singer’s Mirror, Mirror

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have a slight—just slight—obsession with formal and experimental poetry. It’s not a problem, really, no matter what any of them might be hinting. (You should also all ignore the story about me rolling right into a wall while trying to work out a final line for a villanelle because although it’s absolutely true that I was too engrossed in that thought to see, well, a wall, it’s also equally true that this or something like it has only happened maybe once. Ok. Maybe ten times. But who is counting?)

Combine formal or experimental poetry with fairy tales, and you have me.

Even if those poems are tucked away in a children’s picture book.

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She Doesn’t Always Get Away: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

It’s such a kind, cuddly story—three cute bears with a rather alarming obsession with porridge and taking long healthy walks in the woods (really, bears, is this any example to set to small children), one small golden haired girl who is just hungry and tired and doesn’t want porridge that burns her mouth—a perfectly understandable feeling, really.

Or at least, it’s a kind cuddly story now.

In the earliest written version, the bears set Goldilocks on fire.

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Guilt and a Lack of Social Mobility: The Red Shoes

I’ve talked quite a bit here about fairy tales I’ve loved.

Time to talk about a fairy tale I’ve hated, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.”

Hans Christian Andersen is generally renowned for his magical, exquisite images, for moments where a mermaid learns to walk on land and fall in love with a prince, or a young girl struggles through flowers, thieves and snow to save her childhood friend through her tears. But this beauty is often mixed with cruelty, and in some cases, his tales seem to have nothing but cruelty, even when they have a happy ending of sorts—with “The Red Shoes” as one of the primary examples of this.

I’d forgotten, until reading this, just how many pairs of red shoes this story has—not just the famous pair at the heart of the tale, but two more. Indeed, although packaged as a story of redemption, this is just as much a story about footwear and feet.

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Fur, Comedy, and Lawsuits: Monsters, Inc.

By 2000, Pixar was doing well enough that Steve Jobs finally—finally—agreed to let the company move from its then-shoddy offices in a questionable neighborhood to a brand new production facility. Taking advice from old Disney hands, who remembered the way that an earlier change in production facilities had led to less communication and creativity between artists, Pixar created a large, open space that would, the company hoped, encourage conversation and collaboration. And just in time—Pixar had new projects in the works that presented new technical challenges, including animating individual strands of fur and creating a new underwater world. No longer content with studying fantastic parts of the regular world, Pixar was now ready to create an entirely new world of its own, inhabited by monsters. Friendly monsters, at that.

If the studio could manage the fur.

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When Real Life Is Juicier Than Fairy Tale Fiction: Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter

At the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) this year, I had only one answer to the inevitable question of “What are you reading now/What was the last book you read that you were actually excited about?”

“This new biography of Angela Carter! You have to read it! She was such a horrible person and it’s amazing.

I think the only other creative thing I expressed that much excitement about at ICFA was Voltron: Legendary Defender. Well, and maybe some of the booze. So I thought I should probably post about the book here.

Strictly speaking, The Invention of Angela Carter: a Biography is more a sifting through and weighing of the various truths and lies surrounding the life of Angela Carter—some from Carter herself, some from friends. Carter liked to create and recreate herself, both in her admitted fiction and her less admitted nonfiction, a process that often included telling strongly disputed stories about events in her past. Biographer Edmund Gordon set himself to the task of examining her life, and giving the most straightforward version he could.

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