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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

When Time Stops: James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks

In 1949, James Thurber was nearly completely blind, and behind schedule on a book. He headed to Bermuda, in hopes that the change of scenery would encourage him to get some work done. Instead, by his own account, he found himself thinking of an evil Duke, a lovely princess, and thirteen clocks. Calling it “an example of escapism and self-indulgence,” Thurber grew obsessed with the book, tinkering and tinkering and tinkering again, until—again in his own words:

In the end they took the book away from me, on the ground that it was finished and that I was just having fun tinkering with clocks and running up and down secret stairs. They had me there.

The result, The 13 Clocks, would be one of his most striking works: something between a fairy tale and a fable, a story and a poem, but always, always, magical.

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Healing from Grief: Pixar’s Up

By 2004, Steve Jobs had decided that the Pixar/Disney relationship could not continue, largely thanks to the ever-worsening relationship between Steve Jobs and Michael Eisner. This had the positive effect of allowing animators to stop worrying about what the Disney marketing machine might want, and think more of what they might want. For Pete Docter, then primarily known for directing Monsters, Inc. (2001), and now tapped to handle both the English translation of Howl’s Moving Castle and come up with another idea for a Pixar film, this turned out to be the story of a grumpy old man—not exactly Disney’s traditional subject matter. It was virtually the perfect time to pitch his idea, given the corporate drama and—


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Mid-Century Flash Fiction: James Thurber’s Fables for our Time

James Thurber (1894-1961) occupies a rather unique place in this discussion of fairy tales and their creators: as far as I know, he is the only writer of fairy tales and fables who suffered a permanent disability in an attempt to recreate a legend.

As the story goes, young James Thurber, placing a perhaps admirable if inevitably misguided trust in his older brother, agreed to stand very very still with an apple on his head so that said older brother could shoot the apple off his head with an arrow, as part of their game of William Tell. Unfortunately, the young Thurbers lacked William Tell’s accuracy with an arrow, and so the arrow hit James Thurber’s eye instead of the apple. James Thurber lost his vision in that eye, and spent the rest of his life slowly going blind.

[When bombs get into your fables]

Family Trauma and Slow Healing: The Girl Without Hands

Since it’s October, the month of Hallowe’en, frights, ghouls and horror, I thought it might be fitting to take a look at one of the most horrific of fairy tales, “Girl Without Hands,” which features such fun stuff as dismemberment, the Devil, betrayal, legal separations, and mutilated deer. No pumpkins, admittedly—at least in the best known versions—but even a fairy tale drenched in horror can’t have everything.

I mention the pumpkins not just because of Hallowe’en, but also because “Girl Without Hands” is often associated with “Donkey Skin,” a tale written by Charles Perrault (and others), which in turn is often connected to Cinderella and her pumpkins, yet another tale written by Charles Perrault (and others), which in turn is often connected back to “Girl Without Hands,” thanks to the supernatural assistance found in both. But while some versions of Cinderella, particularly the one told by the ever cheerfully gory Giambattista Basile and the one recorded by the Grimm brothers in Household Tales (1812) have a bit of gore, none quite come close to the gore and brutality of “Girl Without Hands.”

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Cracking Open the Nutcracker: Gregory Maguire’s Hiddensee

Gregory Maguire has built a career out of deconstructing fairy tales and famous works of fantasy through the platform of the novel, examining creations as varied as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Ebenezer Scrooge, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Snow White. In Hiddensee, he takes on another popular fantasy: the tale of the Nutcracker.

Or at least part of it.

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A Fairy Tale with Poor Oral Health: Diamonds and Toads

Some fairy tales fill me with wonder. Some with anger. Some with glee.

And some fairy tales just make me think, whoa, that would be painful.

In this last category is “Diamonds and Toads,” a tale of two sisters who, thanks to an unthinking fairy, end up having some severe oral issues—and that’s before we even consider the economic consequences.

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Robots in Love: WALL-E

Now that Disney and Pixar were finally, firmly united under one corporate umbrella, Pixar animators surprised everyone by doing something a bit different: creating a film that Disney could not use to sell toys.

Instead, their new film, WALL-E, would explicitly call out the culture of overconsumption that Disney so avidly promoted, making it one of the most anti-Disney products ever to be released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures—an interesting start to the new Disney/Pixar relationship.

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The OTHER Live-Action Beauty and the Beast

As we all—well, at least some of us—prepare to view Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast once it arrives on Netflix in just a few more days, I thought it might be fun to look at the other live action adaptation currently available on Netflix: the 2014 Beauty and the Beast, a French-German film starring Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel as Belle and the Beast, respectively.

[Extraordinary CGI. Less extraordinary story…]

Displacement and Poverty: The Town Musicians of Bremen

As I’ve noted in a few previous posts, the Grimm brothers collected their folk and fairy tales after a traumatic time of national crisis and displacement: the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, even some of their seemingly most cheerful tales reflect fears of displacement and loss. As in “The Town Musicians of Bremen,” on its surface a comedy about four elderly animals who manage to trick a few robbers out of a house—but only on the surface.

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Escaping Through Mundane Means: Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s Fairy Tale Retellings

The success of Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s first mundane fairy tale, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” (1866) encouraged her to write more. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” appeared in 1867, followed by a retelling of “Cinderella” in 1868, followed by a steady progression of retellings of somewhat lesser known fairy tales, collected into two volumes: Bluebeard’s Keys and Other Tales in 1874, and Five Old Friends in 1875.

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A Rat With a Dream: Ratatouille

As Bob Iger later liked to tell the tale, the idea for buying Pixar came to him while he was watching one of the parades during the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland in September 2005. As he watched, he realized that none of the newer parade characters—that is, characters introduced in the past ten years—were Disney characters. They were all Pixar characters. (I can only conclude that Hong Kong Disneyland did not share my love for Lilo & Stitch.) If Disney was to continue, he thought, the company needed Pixar—and the chief creative genius behind Pixar, John Lasseter.

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Finding Fairy Tale in the Mundane: Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”

These days, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) may be best known as the woman who edited the correspondence of her novelist father William Makepiece Thackeray, not always to the satisfaction of later scholars. She was also, according to most sources, the first person to publish a version of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”—a recognition almost always followed by the caveat that she probably didn’t invent the saying herself. But as her step-niece Virginia Woolf noted, in her own day, Ritchie was known and loved for far more than merely being the daughter of the author of Vanity Fair and the scribe of wise sayings—including her fairy tales, early examples of fairy tales retold using realistic, contemporary settings.

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Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose

In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.

Poet, dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde had a decided taste for fairy tales, even in some of his most mundane work. His play The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, ends with a scene that could be lifted straight from any of a hundred stories of children lost at birth eventually found by parents, if with more than a touch of Wilde’s mockery: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Take that, all of you abandoned and kidnapped fairy tale princes and princesses!

But his mockery could not hide his genuine love for the genre. He indulged this love in two collections of fairy tales: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and The House of Pomegranates (1891). “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a response to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” is in the first. Wilde admired the way Andersen used his fairy tales to critique society—something Wilde himself would do in his own tales—but profoundly disagreed with Andersen’s depictions of sacrifice and with Anderson’s preference for the natural over the manufactured and artificial. His own tale takes a decidedly different approach.

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Music and Mechanics: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”

“Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”

In the early 1840s, fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen had already published his first collections of short stories, as well as two popular, well reviewed novels. Emboldened by these early successes, he had begun to turn from creating delicate literary versions of the oral stories he had heard as a child, to creating his own stories. These new tales were part fairy tales, part social criticism. Among these was “The Nightingale,” first published in New Fairy Tales in 1843, a story of music, near death, and mechanics—one of the closest things Andersen ever wrote to a steampunk tale, and one that he wrote swiftly, assuredly, over just two days.

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Transforming a Fairy Tale into Court Politics: Kara Dalkey’s The Nightingale

Demons. Poetry contests. A cat that may not be exactly a cat. Not elements that exactly come to mind when thinking about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a story without demons or cats, but all blended into Kara Dalkey’s novel-length retelling of the story, The Nightingale, which transforms Andersen’s fable into a novel of palace intrigue, magic and poetry.

Dalkey wrote her novel as part of Terri Windling’s The Fairy Tale series, novel length fairy tale retellings intended for adults. She kept many elements of the original tale. As in the original story, for instance, the emperor learns of the music in his gardens from reading a book written by outsiders, not his own courtiers, and as in the original story, the courtiers are led to that musician by a kitchen maid. As in the story, his own courtiers are frequently none too perceptive—or alternatively, so focused on their own ambitions and problems that they forget to notice little things like the way a certain courtesan keeps herself very carefully away from mirrors and still pools of water. And as in the original story, both of the “nightingales” try to perform together, and fail, and most members of the court find themselves on the side of the courtesan—who, as in the original tale, is not entirely natural.

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