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Mari Ness

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Fiction and Excerpts [3]

The Brothers Grimm’s “Bearskin” Asks: What Would You Do for a Magic, Bottomless Purse?

After princesses, the most popular subject in western fairy tales might just be bears. Talking bears, transformed bears, bears able to use sign language, bears arousing questionable passions in young handsome princes, bears with somewhat questionable agendas, the occasional dead bear—you name the bear, and it’s probably in some fairy tale, somewhere. To the point where even a deal with the devil story ends up managing to involve a bear. A mostly dead bear, true, but, still, a bear.

Oh, and yes, make some indirect points about ensuring that soldiers receive some sort of income post-war and musing on the boundaries between humans, bears and monsters, but I choose to focus on the bear part.

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Can Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time Possibly Live Up to the Book?

Tomorrow is the release date of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time.

I loved the book.

I loved Meg.

I—mostly—love Disney, in an off-and-on, “it really depends upon the last film and just how much are the theme parks charging for drinks right now” kinda way.

I am apprehensive.


[Spoilers for the novel]

Departing from the Disney Message Just a Tad: Monsters University

If you’re not scary, what kind of monster are you?

The astonishing success of the 1999 Toy Story 2—a movie that managed to outgross its predecessor and earn even better reviews—made Disney even more eager for sequels. When, just two years later, Monsters, Inc. managed to outgross Toy Story 2, Disney believed that they knew what that next sequel could be, and told Pixar creatives to start brainstorming. Disney executives were so eager, in fact, that when Disney and Pixar parted ways in 2005, Disney announced that they would be going ahead with a sequel to Monsters, Inc.

It just wouldn’t be created by Pixar.

[Very spoilery, since a part of the ending needs discussion.]

I’ve Fallen for Who Now? The French Fairy Tale of “Bearskin”

We’re all fairly familiar with the tale of the girl who meets her prince at a ball. But what if the princess just happens to already be legally and religiously married—to an ogre? And is having just a few issues with her current personal appearance, by which I mean “sometimes she looks like a bear, although the sort of bear that collects flowers in the wood, not the sort of bear that eats people, although frankly, given the sort of story she’s in, she probably should be eating more people.”

You’d have the French salon fairy tale, “Bearskin.”

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Imprisonment and the Fairy Tales of Henriette Julie de Murat

Most of the French salon fairy tale writers lived lives mired in scandal and intrigue. Few, however, were quite as scandalous as Henriette Julie de Murat (1670?—1716), who, contemporaries whispered, was a lover of women, and who, authorities insisted, needed to spend some quality in prison, and who, she herself insisted, needed to dress up as a man in order to escape said prison—and this is before I mention all of the rumors of her teenage affairs in Brittany, or the tales of how she more than once wore peasant clothing in the very halls of Versailles itself.

Oh, and she also wrote fairy tales.

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Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults: Snow White, Blood Red

In 1993, editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling offered up an anthology of fairy tales written expressly for an adult audience, Snow White, Blood Red. Featuring writers as distinct as Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, Charles de Lint and Patricia McKillip, the anthology contains nineteen fairy tales and one poem, as well as two introductory essays from the editors.

It’s a book that I mostly remembered for one of its retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, and also for introducing me to Charles de Lint’s Newford stories and novels.Rereading it now, I realized that I’d forgotten its other strength: it showcases just how much can be done with and inspired by fairy tales.

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Pixar and a Disney Princess: Brave

By 2008, Pixar seemed to be well settled into the Disney family. So well settled, indeed, that Disney executives thought it would be a good idea for Pixar to strengthen those ties still further—by, say, doing something with one of Disney’s established franchises. Oh, not Winnie the Pooh or Disney Fairies. Those profitable franchises didn’t really need a new touch. But something that could use Pixar’s magical touch and creativity.

Say the Disney Princess franchise.

As it turned out, animator and director Brenda Chapman had already been, conveniently enough, musing about a story of a princess, her mother, and a bear. With just a few tweaks, it could easily be turned into a Disney Princess film.

And so, Pixar moved Brave into production.

[Major spoilers for Brave]

Creating a Tale of Sisterhood: Snow-White and Rose-Red

Fairy tales rarely depict sisters and sisterhood in a positive light. Fairy tale sisters generally end up at best envious or useless or both, when not turning into active and deadly rivals. This negative depiction stretches far back into ancient times: Psyche, for instance, ends up suffering almost as much from her sisters as from her unwelcoming mother-in-law, Aphrodite. A few shining counter-examples can be found here and there in some early French and Italian fairy tale collections, or in English folktales featuring sisters that save their siblings. But for the most part, these stories feature sisters saving brothers. Anyone reading fairy tales could easily come away with the impression that having sisters, especially older sisters, can be really dangerous for you.

Indeed, the trend was so ingrained in western culture that by the time Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their collection of fairy tales, the 1812 Children’s and Household Tales, they had difficulty finding any positive depictions of sisterhood. But by the 1833 edition, they were able to include a story of two sisters who aren’t out to kill each other—”Snow-White and Rose-Red.”

How did they manage this? By making quite a lot of it up.

[Which probably explains why so much of it makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE.]

A Tale of Tiny Artistry: Thumbelina

During a recent cold spate here in Florida, various creatures—largely but not just iguanas—fell out of trees and onto people’s heads. (No. Really. Sometimes Florida can be a really strange place.) Or missed people’s heads entirely and just slammed down on the ground, stunned. Looking very very dead—until, that is, the weather warmed up, allowing the (surviving) iguanas to start to move again. That all mostly happened south of me—here, the main Strange Animal Reactions to the Cold consisted of two squirrels conspiring to empty the bird feeder again—but the stories ended up reminding me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “Thumbelina.”

What, exactly, do weird animal moments in Florida have to do with a famous Danish fairy tale? Well, simply enough: the same thing happens in “Thumbelina”—only with a bird instead of an iguana.

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Precociousness and Telekinesis: Rereading Roald Dahl’s Matilda

Matilda, published in 1988, is one of Roald Dahl’s longest and most intricate novels for children. The story of a highly precocious little girl who slowly develops powers of telekinesis, it focuses more on issues of destiny, education and employment than his usual subjects of wordplay, terror and disgusting things, though the book still has more than one incident that will delight kids who love disgusting things more than it will adults.

Richer and more questioning than most of his other novels, it may not be entirely successful, but it offers kids, and possibly grown-ups, a lot to think about.

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Bookending Realism with Fairy Tale: The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski

Before her death from lung cancer in 2016, Jenny Diski was perhaps best known as an essayist and travel writer, with a gift for combining travel writing with memoir, as in her 1997 work, Skating to Antarctica. She was also known, in certain circles, as “that writer Doris Lessing rescued.” That had the benefit of being true: after a painful childhood, including alleged sexual abuse and multiple stays in mental health institutions, Diski found herself in the home of Doris Lessing, probably best known to readers as one of the few (I think perhaps the only) writer honored with both a Guest of Honor spot at Worldcon and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A few years later, Diski started working in journalism. Eventually, she churned out acclaimed non-fiction, ten novels and one short story collection, The Vanishing Princess. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1995, and now available in the United States from Harper Collins, the collection follows Lessing’s habit of bridging the boundaries between genre and mainstream literature—and proves that, among other things, Diski could also write fairy tales.

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Pixar’s First Minor Roadblock: Cars 2

Every long-term creative outpouring and effort will run into a bump at some point.

Even that of Pixar, which by Toy Story 3 had enjoyed a nearly unmatched run in Hollywood terms, and certainly in animation terms, of critically and financially successful films, interrupted by only the minor blip of Cars—which if not a critical favorite, had at least been a financial favorite.

Which came to a braking halt with Cars 2.

Which I ended up enjoying a bit more than Cars, but we’ll get there.

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Overflowing with Magical Shoes: The Elves and the Shoemaker

For the most part, the tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm avoided any mention of specific holidays. Even those holidays somewhat associated with the supernatural or fairies, such as Midsummer’s Eve, one of the few days where, faerie authorities assure us, you might—might—be able to see a fairy. They did make one exception, however: Christmas, which forms an important part of their tale of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”

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Where Should You Start Reading The Chronicles of Narnia?

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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