Say you happen across Sharon Blackie’s newest short story collection, Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women. You pick up the book, flip through to its table of contents. See a list of fairy tales both familiar and less so.
Say you’re the sort who can’t resist a book of fairy tales. “It’ll be lovely,” you tell yourself as you settle in with the book. “I know exactly what to expect.”
But say you don’t.
Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women is a collection of stories focusing on female shapeshifters in European myths and fairy tales and the relationship that exists, broken may it be, between humans and the world we inhabit. “Foxfire” and “Wolfskin” are both titles of stories contained in the collection; others include “The Madness of Mis,” “The Water-Horse,” and “The Saturday Diary of the Fairy Mélusine.” Despite the variety in the stories, their narrators, and even their origins, each tale depicts shapeshifting as a method of escape or a method of growth for the women within them.
The thirteen stories in Blackie’s collection span a variety of European fairy tales and folklore, but most are connected to Scottish and Irish tales and mythological figures. Blackie holds a degree in Celtic studies with a focus in Celtic literature, myth, and folklore, and her knowledge of both Celtic folklore and the land in which the stories are rooted are a highlight of this collection. Blackie introduces readers to a variety of women from Celtic lore—Mis of The Romance of Mis and Dubh Ruis in “The Madness of Mis,” the Cailleach in “No Country for Old Women,” Emer and Fand of The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn in “The Weight of a Human Heart,” and the host of women from the fourth of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi in the story “Flower-Face”—in stories that both pay homage to the original tales and take liberties with granting their heroines more satisfying endings. Both “The Weight of a Human Heart” and “Flower-Face” offer more compassion to the stories’ protagonists as well as criticizing the deep sexism entrenched in the original stories.
Foxfire, Wolfskin is representative of Blackie’s views towards returning to a more traditional connection to a person’s native lands—two of her previously published books are nonfiction on slow living and stewardship of nature—as well as critical of regional Christianization and its suppression of pagan traditions. The stories that address Christianity directly, often by name or through allusion to parish leaders, most often also address modernization and departure from the old ways. “The Madness of Mis” is the most direct reference to the connection to and stewardship of the land: Mis flees the world of man after seeing the horror of war for the first time, immersing herself in the Sliabh Mis mountains and growing long fur and feathers as she spends more time in the wilderness. Mis’s solitude in the wilderness is itself a critique of the society she lived in:
“You scared them, all right. Kept them away from Mother Mountain; kept them away from Sister River. It wasn’t killing you wanted—you’d seen enough of their filthy death. You wanted to be left alone. Had enough of their civilization. Had enough of men’s wars.”
In the author’s notes at the close of the collection, Blackie gives a brief overview of the folklore that inspired each story in the collection as well as providing additional commentary or sources when necessary. The summaries of the original tales are especially helpful for readers less familiar with beings such as the Scandinavian huldra or the Celtic each-uisge, while other notes discuss the author’s fascination with its subject or the elements she incorporated from a variety of sources. “The Bogman’s Wife,” for example, is a tale about a sea trout that transforms into a woman, and Blackie notes that the story was inspired not by a specific myth but by a work of poetry. Other notes explore what the author views as an injustice or disservice done to the characters in the original tale, such as Blodeuedd in “Flower-Face” and the other women betrayed in the story by the actions of the malevolent enchanter Gwydion.
There are several themes that recur throughout Foxfire, Wolfskin explored in a breadth of ways: fertility and infertility, the relationships between women and men both on a personal and societal level, and connection to the land and to wilderness as an embodiment of freedom. The relationships between women and men are explored at nearly every level in the collection, which is largely dictated by the collection’s theme: fairy tales notoriously leave women behind as corpses, as prizes to be won by men, or simply as evil beings in face of usually masculine heroism. Blackie addresses the latter in her notes on the story “Snow Queen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: “Although (not surprisingly) she seems to lack warmth, [the Snow Queen] isn’t presented as evil, and actually comes across as rather lonely … Characters based on the Snow Queen in other books and movies (from the White Witch in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, to the various TV and cinematic movies of the same name) tend to nevertheless have been presented as evil…” The Snow Queen as presented in Blackie’s story is a figurehead of the earth facing human-driven climate change, which harkens to the author’s focus on the connection between humans and the land they live on.
But the author goes deep into the relationships between women and men in just about every story, diving deep into older tales that use its women as prizes, as empty robots, as adulterous betrayers. The greatest standout in this regard is “Flower-Face,” based on a story from the Mabinogi in which enchanter Gwydion crafts a woman from flowers as a wife for his nephew, naming her Blodeuedd or Flower-Face; in the original story, Blodeuedd falls in love with another man and conspires to kill the husband she was created for, then turned into an owl when she and her lover fail to kill her husband. The Blodeuedd in Blackie’s story is vengeful, resentful of the man who tore her roots from the ground and forced her into a new shape, spiteful of the men who forced her into a marriage she did not want to a man who had no interest in her:
“I was made to give, Gwydion—but what did any of you ever give to me? Instead of giving, you gave me away. You made me from flowers to give to a man as his slave. You gave me to a man who could not love me; you gave me to a man who would not even look me in the eye. I was never a real woman to Lleu; I was merely a doll, made for his pleasure.”
Many of the stories feature women who push back against the patriarchal rule of men who would tame them; some, like “The Last Man Standing” and “The Madness of Mis,” depict deeply affectionate and respectful marriages utterly unlike those in “The Weight of a Human Heart” and “The Bogman’s Wife,” featuring husbands both unfaithful and cruel.
Foxfire, Wolfskin is a meditation on the literal and allegorical transformations women undergo for many reasons: for survival, for retribution, and for themselves. This is a book that will satisfy readers looking for fairy tale retellings of tales that aren’t princess stories, and the collection will hold equal appeal for readers of nature-driven fantasy and those who enjoy themes of wilderness as freedom.
Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women is available from September Publishing.
Feliza Casano writes about science fiction, manga, and other geeky media around the internet. She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she moderates two book clubs and lines her walls with stacks of books. Visit her online or follow her on Twitter @FelizaCasano.