Review by Kaede.
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I’ve never enjoyed fairytales. When I was younger, I thought they were stupid, nonsensical drivel. In my discriminatory childish way, I found some things about them easy to accept, yet completely rejected others. Talking animals, yes. Beanstalks that grow high up into the clouds, totally fine. The ability to spin straw into gold, I’m down with that. But how would a swan’s egg end up in the nest of a goose or a duck? Alright, so the beanstalk has grown into the sky, but how can the clouds support giants? Why is the wolf always the bad guy? And under the mattress seems to be such a popular hiding place for things like diaries or guns, I hardly think a princess would be troubled by a pea. As I got older, I realised that the real problem I have with fairytales, well the versions of them that I heard, is that the characters are all so two dimensional. Step parents are always wicked for no reason, kings completely pure or terribly malicious, and princesses are forever an untainted fresh breath of air, swirling their beautiful and elegant way through the narrative. But this is not how people are. Why is the step mother so evil? Something must have happened to make her this way. Wasn’t she once a young girl too? And surely inside the heart of every innocently glowing princess lie the pooling shadows of secrets.
Since my early dismissal of fairytales, I haven’t had much to do with them. Even the number of Disney films I have seen is pretty abysmal. Sure I learnt that the pretty versions I had heard as a child were often variations on the original, more violent and gruesome, tale, yet this revelation didn’t interest me. Despite this, I was excited when I heard about the publication of The Wilful Eye
– finally a collection of “fairytales” written for adults! Gathered by well-known authors Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab, The Wilful Eye
was the first of two instalments, each containing six appropriations of fairytales penned by writers of modern fantasy. I purchased the book as soon as it was released, then let it sit untouched on my bookshelf for a considerable amount of time.
A few days ago, I dug The Wilful Eye
out from a pile of books and read it. I loved it. Of the six authors that are published in this first instalment, I had only read work by Isobelle, so style-wise, I didn’t have much idea what to expect. The first novella (I hesitate to call them short stories), titled Catastrophic Disruption of the Head by Margo Lanagan, immediately sucked me in and left me whirling uneasily like dirty bathwater going down a plughole. A short way into the story, I forgot that I had been intending to play a game of “identify the fairytale”. This tale was completely capable of standing on its own, without fairy scaffolding, and addressed themes that most adults would like to be able to ignore. In the end, I didn’t recognise the fairytale, The Tinderbox
by Hans Christian Andersen, around which the story was constructed anyway, but by the time I had reached the afterword written by Margo, this seemed largely irrelevant.
Second in the book was Isobelle’s own story, Moth’s Tale
. For some unknown reason when I started reading, I was determined that Isobelle’s story would not be among my favourites. Irrational, I know. After all, the whole reason I had purchased the collection was because of her involvement. I’m still not entirely sure I can explain the mysterious motivation behind this resolution, perhaps something similar to my initial conviction not to read the Harry Potter
series, simply because it was so popular, however, I am clearly not a person of resolve. I have read Harry Potter
more times than I can remember, and Moth’s Tale
, in the company of Richard Harland’s contribution to the collection, Heart of the Beast
, is one of my favourites.
contains some elements that may be familiar to readers who have encountered Isobelle’s other works, namely, the ability of the main character, Moth, to speak to and hear the voices of animals. Rather than the similarity being too cliché or a handicap, Isobelle weaves a new tapestry of colour using this worn yet incredibly well-loved thread. Isobelle’s tale, though full of its own feelings of dread, sadness, and anger at the unfairness of it all, ultimately lifted me out of the pit in which Margo Lanagan had skilfully dumped me. Based around Rumpelstiltskin
, Isobelle gives the world of fairytale more depth and she succeeded in carving detail into the two dimensional image in my mind. Fairytales had gained a little embossing.
, by Rosie Borella, came third; this time a tale based around Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen
, yet set in modern day Australia. “The Snow Queen? In Australia?”
I hear you ask. Believe me, it works. Rosie addresses issues that are more common in today’s society than those which would have been important in ages past (for example encountering drugs at a party in the city rather than being eaten by a wolf in the forest), as well as those such as friendship and love, those glowing embers eternal.
Following this is my other favourite in the collection, Heart of the Beast
by Richard Harland. Not surprisingly, this is an appropriation of La Belle et la Bête, Beauty and the Beast
in English. I first saw the Disney version of this fairytale only a year ago, so despite a rather late introduction, the story was familiar to me. Why is this one of my favourites? I think for once it’s not the emotion, but the moral and empowerment of the story. Don’t judge by appearances. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t even necessarily judge by past actions.
Margaret Mahy is the author of the fifth novella in The Wilful Eye. Wolf Night
, based on a fairytale in which two children are dumped in the woods where they eventually die, brings feelings of loneliness, abandonment and vulnerability to a very adult setting. As has happened literally in so many places around the globe, the threatening woods have been turned into threatening streets, and it is now the humans who wear the wolf-like grins. Links to the original tale are woven cleverly throughout the story, something which the very characters succeed in noticing.
The final tale, One Window
by Martine Murray, similar to the fairytale on which it is based, is a story of loss and longing, imprisonment and freedom. Unlike The Steadfast Tin Soldier
however (Hans Christian Andersen), this version does not end in fiery oblivion. In the afterword, Martine says that despite initially intending to tragically kill off the main character as in the original, her fondness for him prevailed. Indeed, the intense emotions experienced by the characters of the tale, both primary and secondary, kindled in me a sort of desperation for it all to end well. Cages abound in this story, both the physical and emotional, and I couldn’t help but feel smothered, suffocated, as I read.
Are these the feelings that a fairytale should invoke? Even now, after reading The Wilful Eye
and knowing the horrors that are hidden in some of the first versions of well-known fairytales, the word “fairytale” still makes me think of clean castles and blonde princesses, perhaps with a subtle hint of pink sparkle in the background. But then I check myself. In the end, it’s not about the plot, who did what to whom and in what order, the place it’s set or the objects involved. It’s more about the themes, the feelings. The fairytales that have been incorporated in this volume may not run true to the stories that inspired them, they may not even run parallel, they wind in and out, crossing over in some places and veering off on a tangent in others, but the essence of each tale remains. Fairytales, despite my earlier preconceptions, are forever relevant, forever tales of basic human emotion. Sometimes, all they need is a change of clothes.
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