September 25, 2015KR OnlineNonfiction

In Olden Times, When Wishing Was Having . . . Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales

From The Kenyon Review, New Series,
Summer/Autumn 1997, Vol. XIX, No. 3-4


Whatever is an exit from that country . . . cannot be an entrance.
John Crowley, “The Green Child”

The fairy tale, as a literary/cultural genre, has traditionally been associated with women; and women have, in different times and in distinctly different ways, impressed upon these tales the nature of their deepest fantasies. The fairy tale of tradition has been imaginatively transformed in recent decades into what might be called the “re-visioned” fairy tale, in which the archetype is retained but given a distinctly contemporary interpretation by individual artists.

Distinguished archivists like the pioneering Charles Perrault (whose Histoires ou contes du temps passé appeared in 1697), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (whose Die Kinder- und Hausmärchen appeared in various volumes, 1812–1857), and Hans Christian Andersen (whose collections appeared 1837–1874) have been male, but most of the material they collected was provided by women. It is of one of these extraordinary sources that Wilhelm Grimm speaks so warmly in the preface to an early Grimms’ edition:

[This woman] retains fast in her mind these old sagas—which talent, she says, is not granted to everyone. She recounts her stories thoughtfully, accurately, with uncommon vividness and evident delight—first quite easily, but then, if required, over again, slowly, so that with a bit of practice it is possible to take down her dictation, word for word.

The very expression “fairy tale” calls to mind a quintessential female sensibility; the tales are “old wives’ tales,” “Mother Goose tales.” This association has long been an ambiguous one, not altogether flattering to women, and frequently disturbing.

For the term “fairy tale” is itself ambiguous. Sometimes it is frankly pejorative, dismissive. Its received connotation has to do with benign, rather brainless fantasy: And they lived happily ever after. But many fairy tales are nightmares of senseless cruelty and violence (as in “The Girl without Hands” a father chops off his daughter’s hands to save himself from the devil—and this, one of the “good” fathers in the Grimm collection); and the terms of “happiness” in others (Hansel and Gretel’s reconciliation with the father who had left them to die in the forest, for instance; the torture death of Snow White’s wicked stepmother) are problematic to say the least. Girls and women are the uncontested property of men, to be handed over by their fathers to virtually anyone the father favors—a murderous/cannibal Robber Bridegroom, a “frightful Beast,” the devil himself. The father’s wish seems to include the daughter’s reflexive response, as if the two were not two but one: when the craven father of “The Girl without Hands” tells his daughter what he must do to save himself from the devil, the daughter meekly replies, “Dear Father, do with me what you will, I am your child” (132). Simply to be female is to be without volition, identity.

In the great majority of the tales, to be a heroine, in even a limited sense requires extreme youth and extreme physical beauty; it would not be sufficient to be merely beautiful, one must be “the greatest beauty in the kingdom”—”the fairest in the land” (as Snow White’s famously jealous stepmother demands for herself). Young, maturing girls like Snow White, Cinderella, and the White Bride of “The White Bride and the Black Bride” (Grimm) are the natural targets of the homicidal envy of older women; ubiquitous in the tales are “wicked stepmothers” who conspire to injure or kill their beautiful stepdaughters. (If there is a fairy tale in which a stepmother befriends her stepdaughter, or even treats her decently, I seem to have missed it.) Even Sleeping Beauty, whose mother loves her, attracts the animus of a wicked (female) fairy, for her possession of a “bright resplendent beauty [that] had somewhat in it luminous and divine” (Opie 86). The lot of women in a patriarchal society which privileged them as valuable possessions (of men), or branded them as worthless and contemptible, made it inevitable that women should perceive other women as dangerous rivals; that there are so many “step”mothers in the tales suggests how frequently women died in childbirth or as a consequence of constant childbearing; how frequently they were replaced by younger wives. Even for princesses like Sleeping Beauty, the optimum marriage age was fifteen or sixteen.

Though fairy tales, like ballads, to which they are closely related, are a communal folk art of the uneducated, nonliterate class, yet they are politically and morally conservative to a degree that seems puzzling. Caste goes unquestioned even in such picaresque, spirited tales as “Puss in Boots”; individual merit is rarely celebrated except in terms of the fixed social order. Contrary to popular assumptions, Cinderella, for instance, is not a commoner but a girl of aristocratic birth whose misfortune has been to lose her mother; when her father remarries, as fathers inevitably do, she finds herself displaced in the household by a cruel stepmother and stepsisters, made into a chargirl (“Cinderella”: “of the cinders”). To interpret “Cinderella: or, The Little Glass Slipper” as a populist rags-to-riches romance is to misinterpret totally its fundamental story, which has to do with the putative injustice of denying one of aristocratic birth her rightful privilege, and with the drama of disguised worth; though Cinderella sleeps in a chimney corner, is forced to wear rags, and is abused by the females in her household, nonetheless she is “a hundred times handsomer than her sisters” in their costly attire. Her physical self, including her small, dainty, beautiful feet, is the expression of her aristocratic virtue, and so she will be recognized by her prince because such virtue will assert itself; how very different from a tale in which a cinder-girl, or match-girl, or beggar-girl, is plucked for romance by a nobleman. In a crucial sense fairy tales work to subvert romantic wishes, for they repeatedly confirm “order” and redress dislocations of privileged birth while leaving wholly unchallenged the hierarchical basis for such privileging. Amid the countless tales exalting the aristocrat over the commoner, “The Princess and the Peas” is a rarity in its suggestion of satire. In the most commonly known version, popularized by Hans Christian Andersen in 1835, aristocratic hyperesthesia is celebrated tongue-in-cheek: a self-declared princess is put to a secret test by her prospective mother-in-law, a queen. The princess sleeps on a bed of twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds laid upon three peas with such discomfort that, in the morning, she complains that her body is black and blue with bruises—proof to the queen and her son that she is the genuine article, a true princess fit to marry a prince, “for it was quite impossible for any but a true princess to be so tender.” Hans Christian Andersen, of working-class origins, concludes the tale with a slyly ironic aside: “Now was not that a lady of exquisite feeling?” (Opie 218).

Few fairy tales, however, are so playful as “The Princess and the Peas,” nor do they suggest subversive attitudes; the world as it appears is not to be questioned, still less resisted. “Progress” in the social-evolutionary sense would be anathema to the fairy-tale atmosphere of fateful resignation and what might be defined as a causeless consequence: your fate is deserved because it happens to you; it doesn’t happen to you because it’s deserved. All “good” heroines accept their fate passively, unquestioningly. To express even normal distress at being viciously mistreated would be in violation of the narrow strictures of fairy-tale “goodness.”

For fairy-tale heroes and heroines are children, and the fairy tale derives from the childhood of the race when there would seem to have been, for most people, no coherent sense of “history”; only an unchanging, static present encompassing an infinite cycle of seasons. The very concept of “history”—the male province of deliberation, analysis, action, acquisition, and control—springs from a grasp of individual self-determination, not mindless passivity and acquiescence. The traditional fairy tale begins Once upon a time—bland, blurred, stereotypical language that thwarts the more vigorous intellectual desire to know when, where, how, why. And who: for while recorded history is a chronicle of specific rulers and their government—a complex mosaic of individual names, dates, allegiances, careers—the fairy-tale world is ahistoric and timeless, politically static, its abbreviated dramatis personae a perennial cast of kings, queens, princes, and princesses; there are wealthy men and poor men, merchants, huntsmen, woodcutters, millers; there are beautiful daughters, handsome young men, and wicked stepmothers (before the Grimms’ discreet alterations, some of these were wicked natural mothers). Beyond this, characterization does not exist; of the growth, development, and evolution of human personality there is none. (Except in those instances in which a vain princess repents of her ill treatment of a disguised prince, or wicked stepsisters repent of their ill treatment of a stepsister who has married a prince.) Of course there are fairies—good, wicked, and “godmothers” (though rarely godfathers); there are giants, ogres, talking beasts of every species, including bears who are likely to be bridegrooms and talking cats likely to be helpers. There are always wolves, and wolves are “bad.”

Many a fairy tale turns upon a secret-word formula or a secret, highly potent name: to utter “Rumpelstiltskin” is to save the life of one’s baby. To have access to a magic knapsack and hat (as in the Grimm tale “The Knapsack, The Hat, and the Horn”) or to a cloak of invisibility (as in the Grimm tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”) is to save one’s own life and to reap great riches. As in Ovid’s great poem The Metamorphoses, there are abrupt, magical changes: young men become swans, or ravens, or boar-like beasts and frogs yearning for human love to redeem them; sometimes, though rarely, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Swineherd,” a disguised, begrimed prince will reveal himself in anger to the princess he would have married, and reject her. In Andersen’s famous tale “The Little Mermaid” a cruel bargain requires that the heroine relinquish her siren’s voice in return for a human shape and human love on earth—a disturbing parable of women’s place in the world of men. (To be different in any respect, for a woman, or even to be suspected of “difference” is dangerous by fairy-tale logic, for the categories of women are few, and divisive: in the cruel, darkly comic cautionary tale “Clever Elsie” [Grimm], a mentally defective girl is boasted to be clever, married off by her father under false pretenses, and soon shut out of her house by her disgruntled husband, who has outfitted her with bells.) As in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey the fairy tales are filled with fantastical interludes in which benevolent or malevolent beings of supernatural origin intrude in human affairs, with the astonishing omnipotence of parents exerting their power in an infant’s life. Above all, human beings are surrounded by invisible forces which cannot be controlled but which, if one knows the secret rite or word-formula, can be placated, like the Judeo-Christian patriarch-god.

(How odd it seems to us, in fact, that the European fairy-tale world coexisted with a powerfully institutionalized and politicized state religion, an essentially anti-Christian, pagan world populated with mysterious nonhuman beings like fairies, trolls, and witches, who ceaselessly involve themselves in the affairs of mankind. The Grimm brothers collected a number of Christian fairy tales under the title “Children’s Legends,” which are about such holy figures as Saint Joseph, the twelve apostles, the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and God himself; little-known tales lacking the dramatic force and arresting images of the more traditional tales.)

What is troubling about the fairy-tale world and its long association with women is precisely its condition as mythical and stereotypical, a rigidly schematized counterworld to the “real”; an enchanted, or accursed, world whose relationship to reality is analogous to that of our dreams to our waking lives. As if the province of women must be unreal, trivial. As if women are fairy-tale beings yearning for nothing more than material comforts, a “royal” marriage, a self-absorbed conventional life in which social justice and culture of any kind are unknown. Which helps to account for why fairy-tale endings are nearly always absurd. For instance,

. . . As they spoke a splendid carriage drove up with eight beautiful horses decked with plumes of feathers and golden harness, and behind rode the prince’s servant, . . . then all set out full of Joy for the Prince’s kingdom; where they arrived safely, and lived happily a great many years.
(“The Frog Prince,” Opie 186)

And a magnificent princess alighted from the coach and went into the mill, and this princess was the little tabby-cat whom poor Hans had served for seven years. . . . [She] took her faithful Hans and set him in the coach, and drove away with him. They first drove to the little house which he had built with the silver tools, and behold it was a great castle, and everything inside was made of silver and gold; and then she married him, and he was rich, so rich that he had enough for all the rest of his life. After this, let no one ever say that anyone who is silly can never become a person of importance.
(“The Poor Miller’s Boy and the Cat,” Grimm 348)

In the yet more transparent wish-fulfillment fantasy “The King of the Golden Mountain” (Grimm), a king takes revenge on his unfaithful queen and a court of kings, princes, and councillors by brandishing a magic sword and uttering the words “All heads off but mine!” with the immediate gratifying result—“All the heads rolled on the ground, and he alone was master, and once more King of the Golden Mountain” (329)


Beauty is a simple passion,
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.
(Anne Sexton, Transformations)

Of course, I’ve been unfair to the very nature of the fairy tale: it is crude, it is transparently wishful, it does reflect the unquestioned prejudices of a conservative patriarchal folk culture. Yet fairy tales contain an incalculably rich storehouse of mysterious, luminous, riddlesome, and ever-potent images, a vast Sargasso sea of the imagination. Though characterization is minimal, plots are bold and original; if endings often have a hasty, perfunctory quality, nonetheless fairy tales can encompass in the space of a few fluid passages complete miniature narratives. Like the folk ballads, the tales spring from a diverse and anonymous communal source, mysterious in their origins as language itself.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm believed that the myths of ancient times had descended first into heroic legend and romance and finally into folktales with an appeal to children. Before the Grimm brothers it was fashionable to revise and “improve” the tales to make them pleasing to an educated reading public, but after the Grimms began to publish their monumental work, respect for the oral folk source was observed; it would come to be considered a violation of principle to alter the purity of the fairy-tale source. Only in recent times has the fairy tale been reclaimed by writers and artists for their own imaginative and frequently subversive purposes. Such experimental, postmodernist work draws upon tradition while boldly “revising” it, often from a feminist perspective as in the work of Anne Sexton (Transformations, 1972) and Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber, 1979).

Anne Sexton’s brilliantly inventive poetry sequence retells sixteen classic fairy tales, among them “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” “Red Riding Hood,” “The Frog Prince,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)”; it is also the confessional document of “a middle-aged witch, me.” The poems are notable for their characteristic Sexton flights of romantic lyricism, black comedy, and bittersweet irony; each poem is preceded by an autobiographical preface-“Take a woman talking, / purging herself with rhymes, / drumming words on a typewriter, / planting words in you like seed grass” (“Iron Hans” 250). “Snow White” faithfully recapitulates the fairy tale in contemporary vernacular language: “The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, / walked three times around Snow White, / the sleeping virgin. They were wise / and wattled like small czars” (226). Unlike Donald Barthelme’s droll metafiction Snow White, Sexton’s poem does not explore the sexual possibilities of a virgin residing with (male) dwarfs; Sexton’s Snow White is a virgin even after her nominal marriage to a faceless prince, a younger version of the wicked stepmother who dies in the dance of red-hot iron shoes: “Meanwhile Snow White held court, / rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut / and sometimes referring to her mirror / as women do” (229). Sexton’s feminism is radical enough to expose and condemn the deadly “femininity” of women who refuse to acknowledge their masculine, aggressive selves: “Inside many of us / is a small old man / who wants to get out . . . / one part papa, / one part Doppelganger” (“Rumpelstiltskin” 237). Cinderella’s tale is “That story”—made banal by familiarity and repetition, yet never entirely believable:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story. (258)

“Red Riding Hood” is the most complex of the poems in Transformations, freely mixing the poet’s anguished personal life (“And I. I too. / Quite collected at cocktail parties, / meanwhile in my head / I’m undergoing open-heart surgery” [269]) with the familiar tale of Little Red Riding Hood deceived and devoured by the wolf and saved by the fortuitous intervention of the huntsman (“It was a carnal knife that let / Red Riding Hood out like a poppy, / quite alive from the kingdom of the belly” [272]). The poem is an anti-lyric, heavy with irony, able to make little of the over-familiar tale, which resolves itself all too easily in a “happy” ending:

Those two remembering
nothing naked and brutal
from that little death,
that little birth,
from their going down
and their lifting up. (272)

“The Frog Prince” is an occasion for a hallucinatory stream of consciousness linking the poet’s confused inner life with the symbolic Other, the Frog: “My guilts are what / we catalogue. / I’ll take a knife / and chop up frog” (282). Not the Frog as Prince but the Frog simply as Frog captivates her.

Frog has no nerves.
Frog is old as a cockroach.
Frog is my father’s genitals.
Frog is a malformed doorknob.
Frog is a soft bag of green.

The moon will not have him . . . (282)

Once Frog becomes Prince, the poem ends abruptly; as in “Hansel and Gretel” the fairy tale swiftly dissolves like a bad dream, with a coda in which the poet speaks ironically: “Their mother, / you’ll be glad to hear, was dead” (290). Sexton’s most personal identification seems to be with “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” whose experience parallels the poet’s own wavering pilgrimage “from Bedlam and partway back” (the title of her first book of poems, 1960):

Consider a girl who keeps slipping off,
arms limp as old carrots,
into the hypnotist’s trance,
into a spirit world
speaking with the gift of tongues.
She is stuck in the time machine,
suddenly two years old sucking her thumb,
as inward as a snail,
learning to talk again.
She’s on a voyage. (290)

Sexton’s Briar Rose, saved by her prince, is released from the prison of catatonic sleep only to fear normal sleep forever, dependent upon “the court chemist / mixing her some knockout drops / and never in the prince’s presence” (293). The poem’s elliptical revelation is a shocking one: Briar Rose has been sexually molested by her king-father, a “theft” committed upon her as a child.

There was a theft.
That much I am told.
I was abandoned.
That much I knew.
I was forced backward.
I was forced forward.
I was passed hand to hand
like a bowl of fruit.
Each night I am nailed into place
and I forget who I am.
That’s another kind of prison.
It’s not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkenly bent over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.
What voyage this, little girl?
This coming out of prison?
God help—
this life after death? (294–95)

A nightmare ending of the boldly revisionist Transformations, this plea is from the child-self, locked in the heart of the adult woman. Is this life after death? may well have been the plea of Sexton’s life, and Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty the poet’s most poignant expression of her suffering.

In Angela Carter’s similarly iconoclastic collection of stories, The Bloody Chamber (in Burning Your Boats), a lush, fevered prose style expresses the exoticism of the fairy-tale world in a way that, ironically, the pedestrian, serviceable prose of the fairy tales themselves did not. (Angela Carter, a scholar/translator of Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé, defined their essence as “heroic optimism,” the principle that makes possible “happy” endings.) A postmodemist fantasist, an experimenter in form and voice, Carter created for her tales a florid, self-conscious, overwrought prose, as in these musings of the seventeen-year-old virgin bride of Bluebeard:

I felt so giddy as if I were on the edge of a precipice; I was afraid, not so much of him, of his monstrous presence, heavy as if he had been gifted at birth with more specific gravity than the rest of us, the presence that, even when I thought myself most in love with him, always subtly oppressed me. . . . No. I was not afraid of him; but of myself. I seemed reborn in his unreflective eyes, reborn in unfamiliar shapes. I hardly recognized myself from his description of me and yet, and yet—might there not be a grain of beastly truth in them? And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption. (115)

The “talent for corruption” in fairy-tale virgins is one of Carter’s most provocative revisionist-feminist themes, often equated with food, drink, perfumes, and flowers, in sensuous prose: “The reeling odor of a glowing, velvet, monstrous [rose] whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor” (“The Lady of the House of Love” 209).

In Carter’s revision of the Bluebeard legend, the collection’s title story, the virgin-bride of the murderous marquis is saved, in an unexpected ending, by her own mother, a huntswoman who arrives at just the right moment: “You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, with her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked around her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver. . . . And my husband stood stock-still, as if she had been Medusa, the sword still raised over his head as in those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard you see in glass cases at fairs” (142)—to fire a single bullet through his forehead. (A ridiculous ending, perhaps, but no more ridiculous than any other fairy-tale ending, the feminist Carter seems to be saying. And why not, for once, feminist wish-fulfillment?) In Carter’s similarly lush, sensuous revision of “Beauty and the Beast,” titled “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” the mythical marriage of innocent virgin and good, decent beast evolves into ordinary domestic marital happiness: “Mr. and Mrs. Lyon walk in the garden; the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals” (153). (How welcome, for once, a fairy-tale ending that subverts the fantastic altogether.) In an artful variant of this marriage tale, “The Tiger’s Bride,” a female sexuality emerges passionately from a lifetime of repression, conquering “nursery fears made flesh and sinew; earliest and most archaic of fears, fear of devourment. The beast and his carnivorous bed of bone and I, white, shaking, raw, approaching him as if offering, in myself, the key to a peaceable kingdom in which his appetite need not be my extinction” (168). Beauty craves Beast as Beast craves Beauty; in erotic union, female and male are perfectly conjoined: “And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and I left behind a nascent patina of shiny hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur” (169).

Carter’s females are hardly “good” girls but complex, morally ambiguous individuals, not to be defined or predicted by gender, as in “The Company of Wolves”: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf” (220). And females can be as cruelly rapacious as males, in “The Snow Child” (in which a decadent nobleman’s wife conspires in his brutal rape and murder of a young girl, the “child of his desire”); and “The Werewolf,” in which, unexpectedly, the grandmother herself is the wolf against whom the shrewd young virgin must defend herself with her father’s knife and a public denunciation of her grandmother to neighbors: “They knew the wart on the hand at once for a witch’s nipple; they drove the old woman, in her shift as she was, out into the snow with sticks, beating her old carcass as far as the edge of the forest, and pelted her with stones until she fell down dead” (211). The tale ends abruptly with the girl (never identified as Red Riding Hood) moving into her grandmother’s house and “prospering.” The Bloody Chamber revels in such startling reversals, dramatic surprises that suggest the tales’ schematic intentions rather more than they evolve from a graceful conjunction of character and tale itself.

Like Sexton’s more slapdash, idiomatic poems, Carter’s prose fictions recapitulate familiar fairy-tale forms from radical angles of perspective. Sexton’s women are trapped in their legends like puppets on strings, while Carter’s are more realized as protagonists, willful and often perverse creations who define themselves against their seemingly prescribed fates. Not “heroic optimism” after all but “defiant self-dramatization” most accurately describes the mood of The Bloody Chamber.

Following the innovative tactics of Sexton and Carter, a number of writers, both female and male, though predominantly female, have experimented with re-visioning the fairy tale in recent years. Though her story is not derived from a specific source, Rachel Ingalls’ novella Mrs. Caliban is clearly of the fairy-tale/wonder-tale mode, notable for its matter-of-fact tracing of a companionable love affair between a housewife and a “frogman”—a creature six feet seven inches tall, indigenous to the Gulf of Mexico. Ingalls’ fantasy is compelling for being so realistic as prose, unlike Angela Carter’s baroque fantasies; though weakened by a hurried, rather sketchy denouement, in which the woman’s unfaithful husband dies in a car crash, Mrs. Caliban has the melancholy, bittersweet air of a romance that has come to no significant resolution, but simply ends with the departure of the frogman-lover.

Like Ingalls’ alien being, the mysterious green-skinned children of John Crowley’s “The Green Child” (collected in Crowley’s slender volume of fabulist tales, Antiquities, 1993) have come from a world, or a counterworld, to which they can never return: “ . . . from a land below the earth [where] there is always twilight. Whatever is an exit from that country . . . is not an entrance” (8). This enigmatic tale of children who have lost their way out of their own world and are exiled in another opens: “This story is recorded by Ralph of Coggeshall and by William of Newbridge, both of whom say it took place in their time, in the middle of the twelfth century, in West Suffolk” (5). The mode of narration is resolutely undramatic, however astonishing the events narrated. One of the green-skinned children, a boy, dies of malnourishment; the other, a girl, survives, able to consume human food and, in time, loses most of her green color—”though her eyes remained large and strangely golden, like a cat’s, and she never grew to proper size” (8). Like most of the tales of Antiquities, “The Green Child” invites symbolic interpretation while pressing for no obvious meaning; nor does it move to a dramatic resolution, inviting us to ponder the mystery of “fairy” children as they might have been perceived in an authentic historic setting. The surviving girl marries, but

. . . if there were children, and children of those children, so that in some way that green land elsewhere and also the distant bright country glimpsed across the wide river entered our plain human race, it must surely be so diluted now, so bound up and drowned in daylight and red blood, as not to be present in us at all. (11)

Some of our most distinguished contemporary writers have drawn imaginatively upon archetypal fairy tales, interpreting them in a distinctly feminist manner. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, for instance, is a realistically rendered revisioning of Shakespeare’s King Lear, itself a bold revision of an ancient Anglo-Saxon legend (in which not daughters but sons “betray” the aging former king); in Smiley’s interpretation, the tragic action derives not from the experience of the tyrannical, self-absorbed father, a midwestern farmer whose ambition has been to own “a thousand acres,” but from the largely repressed, debilitating experience of his three daughters, who have been victims of their father’s incestuous lust. (Significantly, the old man never acknowledges his brutal exploitation of his daughters, never repents.) Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride is an ebullient, rather farcical modern-day variant of the nightmare tale of female victimization, and her more realistically depicted short story “Bluebeard’s Egg” conflates variants of the classic Bluebeard legend, including a little-known version that predates Perrault. In this variant, not a key but an egg is the object of Bluebeard’s temptation of his young wife. At the conclusion of Atwood’s story we are left to contemplate with the betrayed and now frightened housewife-heroine her mysterious husband, a surgeon, who in his impenetrable maleness would seem to be, himself, Bluebeard’s egg: “This is something the story left out, Sally thinks: the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” (164).

In Shirley Jackson’s curious version of the Bluebeard legend, “The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith” (subtitled “The Mystery of the Murdered Bride,” a story never published during the author’s lifetime but probably written in the early 1960s), the murderous husband’s seventh wife, “Mrs. Smith,” is mysteriously, maddeningly passive in her role as victim, as the Bluebeard-figure is himself passive. The author seems to be suggesting in this enigmatic, rather low-keyed tale that the Bluebeard archetype of the murdering husband/helpless bride repeats and repeats and repeats through history; individuals lack all volition, caught in the impersonal cycle of murderer and victim, sexual psychopath and bride. The story ends:

“A week of marriage was too much for you,” [Mr. Smith] said, and patted her hand. “We’ll have to see that you get more rest.”

Why does it take so long, why does it take so long? Mrs. Smith thought . . . and turned and said to her husband, “Well?”

“I suppose so,” Mr. Smith said, and got up wearily from the couch. (88)

A. S. Byatt’s “The Story of the Eldest Princess” mimics the quest-motif of fairy tales and legends by following the episodic fortunes of a princess who seems to know that she is “caught in a story” not of her own devising; her meeting with an old woman (fairy godmother) instructs her to find a way out by realizing that “many things may and do happen, stories change themselves, and these stories are not histories and have not happened” (28). In “Ursus Triad, Later” by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg, the tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is transmogrified as a hallucinatory erotic fantasy of Goldilocks’ sexual subjugation to the bears, her masochistic accommodation to violation by the nonhuman: “You wanted to be filled? their postures asked her as they came upon her. Then be filled. To bursting.” The innocent virgin becomes, through sexual degradation, Queen of the Bears, “the queen of the magic forest and the empty house, daughter of the night born to gambol in stricken and ecstatic pleasure . . . to pour and fill and to become” (234). Beneath the classic fairy tale of a child blundering into a house not her own, a self-annihilating fantasy.

That the artful re-visioning of fairy tales has become a popular genre is attested by the commercial success of a series of anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terni Windling with such titles as Black Thorn, White Rose; Snow White, Blood Red; Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. Among these stories is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast” titled “The Beast” by Tanith Lee, in which the inner, secret bestial nature of a handsome prince-like lover is revealed at his death; a variant of “Hansel and Gretel” by Gahan Wilson updates the fairy tale to the Depression, conjoining it with a parable of wealth, privilege, and exploitation in which brother and sister coolly supplant the malevolent witch who would destroy them. Kathe Koya’s “Waking the Prince” reverses stereotypical male activity and female passivity in a narrative that moves in parallel time dimensions, one quaintly fairy tale and the other achingly contemporary. “The Huntsman’s Story” by Milbre Burch is an anti-fairy tale about a psychotic serial killer and a child victim (Polly Klass) murdered in California several years ago after being abducted by a parolee with a lengthy criminal record. The deep melancholy of the narrative excludes all magical transformations, the sleight of hand of elevated language:

She followed him mutely, not out of literary convention, but because he bound her mouth with duct tape. . . . No seven small men to befriend her. When it’s time, there will be six pallbearers. The huntsman came unbidden. (220-21)

It is instructive to note that the contemporary fairy tale in its revised, reimagined form has evolved into an art form that subverts original models; from the woman’s (victim’s) perspective, the romance of fairy tales is an illusion, to be countered by wit, audacity, skepticism, cynicism, an eloquently rendered rage.

This essay appeared, in a slightly different form, in Into the Mirror: An Anthology of Women on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor, Doubleday; 1998).

Works Cited
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Byatt, A.S. “The Story of the Eldest Princess.” Caught in a Story:     Contemporary Fairy Tales and Fables. Ed. Christine Park and Caroline     Heaton. Washington: Vintage, 1992. 12–29.
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Crowley, John. Antiquities. Seattle: Incunabula, 1993.
Datlow, Ellen, and Terri Windling, eds. Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. New
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Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
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Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. Her memoir The Lost Landscape was published by Ecco in September 2015. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.