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Mari Ness

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

A Transformed Woman: Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.”

“Either become a woman, or make me a cat.”

The image of a beast hiding deep within an enchanted forest in an enchanted castle, waiting to be transformed through love, is generally associated with, well, male beasts. The beasts also typically have a frightening appearance: they are often bears, or lions, or something too terrifying to describe.

But sometimes, that enchanted beast is a girl. As in Madame d’Aulnoy’s novelette, “The White Cat.”

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Apparent Obsession With Feet

Read any collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales—any—and one thing becomes immediately apparent:

Dude had a really strange, unhealthy obsession with feet.

Especially the feet of little girls.

Especially especially the feet of poverty stricken little girls.

Even in stories that—at least on the surface—have nothing to do with footwear, shoes, or even feet at all.

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Fairy Tales for Survivors: The Armless Maiden

One of the most profound influences on my understanding of fairy tales was The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors (1995), edited by Terri Windling, an anthology I discovered quite by chance while browsing a bookstore one day. I picked it up partly because of the title, partly because it had a couple of stories from favorite authors, partly because it seemed to be about fairy tales, and mostly because it had a nice big sticker proclaiming that it was 25% off.

Never underestimate the value of nice big stickers proclaiming that things are 25% off, even if those stickers end up leaving sticky residue all over your book, which is not the point just now.

Rather, it’s how the book changed my understanding of fairy tales.

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A Fairy Tale with the Worst of Husbands: “The Swan Maidens”

Many tales of animal brides and grooms are tales of high romance and love. Others are tales of arranged marriages, carefully crafted to reassure audiences that yes, happiness and even love could be found in those situations—and that appearances could be deceptive. And still others are stories of outright terrible spouses, where using the word “animal” to describe the spouse is an insult to real animals everywhere.

The version of “The Swan Maidens” collected and retold by Australian folktale scholar Joseph Jacobs in his 1916 European Folk and Fairy Tales is most definitely in that terrible spouse category.

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A Meditation on Forests, Life, and Art: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Fir Tree”

For all of his use of Christian imagery, to the point of occasionally writing virtual Christian morality tales, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen tended to avoid mentioning specific Christian holidays in his fairy tales. The young boy in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” for instance, receives his toys as a birthday present, not a Christmas one. Even the novella-length The Snow Queen, with its focus on winter and quotes from the Bible, never mentions Christmas at all.

Perhaps it’s as well, since his one major exception, “The Fir Tree,” may not exactly get readers into the holiday spirit.

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A Thin But Frosty Modern Fairy Tale: “Frosty the Snowman”

It’s one of the undeniable, inescapable rites of the season: listening to “Frosty the Snowman.”

Short of barring yourself inside the walls of your own home and never venturing out for the entire month of December, you’re almost bound to hear the annoyingly cheerful lyrics and melody. In part because it’s a secular song, and therefore deemed somewhat less likely to offend or irritate listeners—an opinion held only by those who have either never heard the song or never listened to its lyrics.

It might help a little to realize that it’s also a fairy tale.

A fairy tale with outright murder in some versions, but we’ll get to that.

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Not Quite Up to the Original: The Incredibles 2

For both Pixar and Disney, the question was not if The Incredibles (2004) would have a sequel, but when The Incredibles would have a sequel. Pixar, after all, had already released one sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999) to great acclaim, and The Incredibles seemed the natural choice for the next sequel: a film/franchise with engaging characters and nearly limitless story opportunities. The film had even ended with the Incredibles gearing up to fight their next villain.

Best of all, writer/director Brad Bird was willing to do the sequel. He even had some ideas for it.

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Saving the Day with Sewing and Flowers: The Grimms’ “The Six Swans”

It can be tough—more than tough—to be the youngest sibling in a fairy tale family. All too often your older siblings are mean to you. That is, when they aren’t directly plotting against you. And that’s what happens when your oldest siblings hate you or are jealous of you. It gets even worse when they like you, as in “The Six Swans” and its various variants.

“The Six Swans” was collected by the Brothers Grimm for their Children’s and Household Tales (1812). It was later recollected by Andrew Lang in The Yellow Fairy Book (1894) who softened many of the details (including pretty much everything to do with the blood), but who also helped popularize the tale for an English-speaking audience. The Grimms in turn got the story from Dortchen Wild, their neighbor who later married Wilhelm Grimm, a marriage presumably at least partly based on a shared love of fairy tales.

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Why You Should Read The Chronicles of Narnia in Publication Order

As someone who has been known to start series smack in the middle—with both books and television shows—I tend to be a bit agnostic on the question of “what order should I read/watch these in?” With three exceptions:

Legends of Tomorrow, which everyone, without exception, should start in the second season, only tackling the first season much, much later after getting a chance to realize that these characters can actually be fun.

Blackadder, which everyone, without exception, should also start in the second season, only in this case, never return to the first season at all.

And The Chronicles of Narnia, which everyone, without exception, should read in publication order.

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When the Girl Rescues the Prince: Norwegian Fairy Tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”

In the second century AD, the Roman writer Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis interrupted the winding plot of his novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass (a title used to distinguish the work from its predecessor, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) to tell the long story of Cupid and Psyche—long enough to fill a good 1/5 of the final, novel length work. The story tells of a beautiful maiden forced to marry a monster—only to lose him when she tries to discover his real identity.

If this sounds familiar, it should: the story later served as one inspiration for the well-known “Beauty and the Beast,” where a beautiful girl must fall in love with and agree to marry a beast in order to break him from an enchantment. It also helped inspire the rather less well-known “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” where the beautiful girl marries a beast—and must go on a quest to save him.

I like this story much more.

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Passivity and Turbulence: Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier

Even the most magical early stories of Hans Christian Andersen had, like most fairy tales, focused on, well, people and other living creatures. That is, what fairy tales were supposed to be about, at least, until then—creatures both imaginary and real who could talk and move. But in 1838, Andersen tried something a little different: a fairy tale about inanimate objects. Specifically, a tale about a tin soldier who could not talk or move.

In English, that was mostly translated to “steadfast.”

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A Shimmering, Dancing Fairyland: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

When Tsar Alexander III saw the opening performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in 1892, in a double performance with Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, he was reportedly delighted by it.

In this, he was nearly alone. Too childish, many critics complained. Too many actual children, others added. Terrible dancing, many agreed. Incomprehensible dancing, noted others, especially in that bit between—what was it? Toy soldiers and some mice? Just dreadful. A very boring second act where absolutely nothing happened, several grumbled. Completely unfaithful to either of the original versions of the story, said fans of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alexander Dumas, pere. A few even made very unkind comments about the appearances of the various dancers, calling some of them fat.

Everyone, however, agreed on one thing: the music was outstanding.

And everyone, including the Tsar, failed to predict what would happen over the next 126 years.

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Nussknacker und Mausekönig, the Original Nutcracker Tale

Centuries before a Hollywood studio thought it would be a great idea to spend millions on a film about a girl travelling to fairy lands created through CGI, and before shopping malls and ad agencies thought it would be an equally great idea to pound the same classical melodies into the ears of shoppers year and after year, a poet and musician bent over his desk in Berlin working on a fairy tale. A story for children, perhaps—his daughter was about 11 at the time. A story about toys coming to life and fighting mice. But as he wrote, images of war and obsession kept creeping into his tale.

Much later, someone thought it would be a great idea to turn his fantasy about inescapable war into a ballet. Which later became inescapable music during the holiday season.

You might be sensing a theme here.

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Chicken Feet and Fiery Skulls: Tales of the Russian Witch Baba Yaga

Despite her appearances in numerous folktales, Baba-Yaga is one of the few creatures of fairy tale that I first encountered strictly through paintings and images, rather than through text or animated cartoon. In part, this is because she was left out of my various collections of western fairy tales, especially since it was years before I encountered the Andrew Lang collections. The ones I had largely focused on English, French, German, Norwegian and Italian fairy tales, with the occasional Spanish or Arabic (or probably faked Arabic, in the case of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) story thrown in. She is, after all, from Russia, and although the occasional Russian or Slavic element crept into my collections, these appearances were rare.

But I did see the pictures: horrific images of a person more skeleton than person, really, reaching out with clawed hands towards terrified children; tiny bizarre houses resting on—could those be bird feet? Chicken feet?—hidden deep in the woods; fiercely ugly old women with long noses using skulls as lanterns.

They were powerful. They were mesmerizing.

Clearly, they had a story.

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Delicate Magics: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin

At the entrance to the town they put on visibility. It made them no warmer, and impaired their self-esteem.

In the last decade of her life, author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) told an interviewer that “I want to write about something different.”

That different turned out to be fairy tales. Warner had played with themes of magic and enchantment in her work before, and always had an interest in folklore, but for this project, she tried something a bit different: interconnected stories of other and fairy. Most were published in The New Yorker from 1972-1975, and collected in the last book printed in Warner’s lifetime: Kingdoms of Elfin (1976). Regrettably out of print for decades, the collection is now being reissued by Handheld Press, with a foreward by Greer Gilman, an introduction by Ingrid Hotz-Davies, and extensive footnotes by Kate Macdonald.

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