Recasting Fairy Tales: Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss was an award-winning writer of short stories (and poems) before she took to novels (The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman) but her novels were the first of Goss’s work I’d ever read. I admire them deeply: they’re engaging, solid, well-crafted examples of the form. But Goss’s shorter work, collected here in a new volume, aren’t just good: they’re a revelation.

Snow White Learns Witchcraft—published by Mythic Delirium Books, an outfit perhaps best currently known for its Clockwork Phoenix anthology series and Mythic Delirium Magazine— collects poems and short stories on fairytale themes. There are eight short stories and twenty-three poems, with each short story bracketed by several poems that bear it some thematic or topical similarity.

I’m not particularly enamoured of Goss’s poetic style. It’s a little too plain and unadorned for me—I’m fond of blank verse, but give me something more of meter and/or internal rhyme to win my heart, or something more dramatic—but in terms of its use, reuse, and reinvention of fairytale, this poetry does solid and uncompromising work. Goss’s spare, elegiac lines carry a weight of emotion and nuance. I think my favourite is “The Stepsister’s Tale,” in which one of Cinderella’s stepsisters has grown up to become a podiatrist, who’s survived her abusive relationship with her mother—and who now is trying to get other women to believe that they are beautiful just as they are, and don’t need to mutilate themselves as she did.

I’m not familiar with all the fairytales that Goss draws on for inspiration, so I can’t always tell which ones she’s playing straight, as it were, and which she’s bending and reinterpreting through new lenses. (My childhood reading was heavier on the Ulster Cycle and the Fenian Cycle, sufficiently bowdlerised for children, than the Brothers Grimm.) But all eight of the short stories in this volume are exquisite pieces of work. Six of them were published elsewhere, including two of my favourites. “Blanchefleur” is a delightful story about a young man, Ivan (known as Idiot), who spends years in very different kinds of apprenticeships under the direction of his aunt, the Lady of the Forest, and accompanied by a small white cat. In the course of that time he gains knowledge and compassion and learns to trust in his own courage—until he’s called upon to face down a dragon.

“The Other Thea,” first published in 2016’s critically-acclaimed The Starlit Wood (Saga Press), is set in present-day America. It’s a story of a young woman, recently graduated from a secondary school that specialises in magic, who’s gradually fading away because she was separated from her shadow in her childhood. She has to go on a quest to find her shadow and to reintegrate both parts of herself. Gently humorous and gorgeously written, this is a lovely piece of work.

Two stories are original to this collection. One, “Conversations with the Sea Witch,” is a story in which the little mermaid is now an old woman, Dowager Queen, speaking with the sea witch to whom she traded her voice: a quiet story about bargains, and prices, and the cost of trying to change yourself for someone else. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The other is “A Country Called Winter,” and it’s worth the price of entry all on its own. It interleaves fairytale and realism in a story about immigration and assimilation, identity and the histories that immigrant parents keep from the children that they encourage to assimilate to the dominant culture of their new home—histories that sometimes catch up with the present. It’s a generous, gentle, and thought-provoking story, and I really enjoyed it.

I enjoyed the whole collection. It’s well worth checking out.

Snow White Learns Witchcraft is available from Mythic Delirium Books.
Read the short story “Conversations with the Sea Witch” here.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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