The Cultural Gutter

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The Turn of the Tale

Chris Szego
Posted February 13, 2014

Frozen thumbCarol’s wonderful piece about Frozen nearly had me writing one of my own.  Sisters being friends, yay! Snowman not as annoying as feared, yay! Big number for Idina Menzel, yay! But the bulk of what I had to say boiled down to ‘better than I thought’. That’s a sentence, not a column.

But Carol’s column did make me think a bit about how stories change in the telling. When it comes to fairy tales, I’m no purist. I love re-tellings, revisions, old favourites made new and strange. That, I think, is what I liked best about Frozen: it took the bare idea of the Snow Queen and told a completely different story, albeit one in which we can vaguely recognize the original.

And that reminded me of some of my favourite fairy tale retellings… and how  so many of them are love stories

eastEast, by Edith Pattou, is one  such. It’s a retelling of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, that old ‘girl-meets-polar-bear’ stalwart. In this version, the main character, Rose, knows she is not what her family wants her to be, but doesn’t know why. When White Bear promises Rose wealth for her family if she’ll come away with him, she agrees. In his castle, she begins to unravel more than one mystery: of her own past, and of White Bear’s future.

It’s a brilliant reimagining of the Norwegian tale. Pattou doesn’t just give us Rose’s point of view: we also get chapters from members of Rose’s family, from the villain, and even from White Bear. I loved his sections. They were like poetry, and mostly involved him trying to remember not to kill and eat her. I also loved the layers of Norwegian mythology, much of which was new to me.  And of course, the book is full of winter — the deadly peace of icy air; the dazzling, blinding sunlight, and the way it makes shadows so perfectly clear — which for me is always a bonus.

 

oldbeautyI picked up Robin McKinley’s Beauty in junior high, partly because its cover reminded me of an old commercial for Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo which I’d adored as a kid.  Now Beauty is one of my absolute favourite fairy tale retellings. In fact, it’s one of my favourite books of all time. It’s Beauty and The Beast with a difference, and that difference is love. Beauty, whose real name is Honor, and her sisters Grace and Hope love each other. The sisters aren’t selfish and conniving: like Beauty they’re caring, hardworking, and doing their best in difficult circumstances. They survive the catastrophic fall of their fortune by packing up and moving out to a farm, where they begin lives of demanding physical labour. But they are a solid, loving family.

The Beast was also different: cultured and urbane, with a house full of treasures he freely shares and mysteries he cannot. Beauty’s horse, Greatheart, stays with her, and the scenes with him provide an avenue of friendship and escape from doubt, plus a little light humour. You actually believe this Beauty can fall in love with this Beast, and indeed, you see it happen.

I’ve carried a copy of Beauty all around the world with me: it is my most important comfort book.  So I was a little leery when, almost twenty years later, McKinley wrote another Beauty and the Beast retelling called Rose Daughter. I put off reading it for a while. I mean, what if the second retelling obliterated my feelings for the first? What would I do?rosedaughter

I needn’t have worried. Rose Daughter is indeed the same basic story; it is also a completely different book. This time the sisters, eldest Lionheart, middle Jeweltongue and young Beauty, don’t start out as friends. They’re acquaintances at best, who live in the same house and do not understand one another in the least. It’s the destruction of the family fortune, and the resultant exile from the city, that forces them to get to know one another. Their lives open up emotionally, the way Beauty’s gardens open to the sun.

Magic is thicker in Rose Daughter than in Beauty: thicker and wilder and harder to understand. The language is similarly richer and more opaque, suggesting the shapes of things rather than describing. The Beast is stranger too, more incomprehensible, more terrifying. But again, love saves the day: Beauty’s love for her family and for the Beast; her sisters’ love for her. Wonderful, wonderful reading.

 

I just finished Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty, another first rate retelling. Nyx has always been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom. She has spent her life training to kill him. But when she does finally marry him, and move into the crazy shifting dreamscape that is his house, she finds that her training is of little use. Ignifex, her husband, is both more and less than she was led to believe, and there are even darker magics at work than the curse that has shrouded her town for nine hundred years.

cruelbeautyHodge has done a marvellous job blending Greek, Roman and Celtic mythologies into something new and gorgeous. Nyx is a conflicted, and fully realized because of that. Of course she wants to save her people; that doesn’t mean she doesn’t bitterly resent her family for forcing her to be a sacrifice. She hates Ignifex — with reason, he does some horrible things to people; at night, alone in the shadows that live and breathe and are not human, she can see in him the same trapped-animal desperation that lives in her own heart. They are both complicated and difficult people. They recognize in one another, they pain each feels, the confusion, the ugliest parts of themselves. And they accept it, which helps each of them accept in her/himself. It’s a lush, spectacular read, and I look forward to more from this talented author.

Four books, with different styles, different characters, different results. And here’s the kicker: these are all the same story.

Girl marries dangerous creature to help her family; is afraid but does it anyway; learns to love the creature; is separated from him; then saves him after a period of difficulty. Oh, hey! Check it out, we’re back to story archetype, one of my favourite things.The story of Psyche and Eros IS East of the Sun, West of the Moon AND Beauty and Beast (and parts of Tam Lin). The specifics might vary from tale to tale but the pattern does not.

We love and love and love these stories, so much so that we find them everywhere we go: in every country, in every era. We tell them endlessly, changing details, twisting endings, loving and old and seeking the new. And the best part? Every one of those versions is true.

 ~~~

Chris Szego likes the version with the fox. Foxes are cool.

Comments

One Response to “The Turn of the Tale”

  1. Carol Borden
    February 18th, 2014 @ 1:59 pm

    *scribbles down books to check out*

    Serendipitously enough, I am just finishing The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There. I’d recommend it, but I’m sure you’re already well-aware of it.

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