Tag: fairy tales

Review: The Grass-Cutting Sword

Hah. Now, this is a strange little novella: a very early Catherynne Valente work, now out of print and available only through t’Internet. (It’s her fourth novel, I think? But she’s written about a million, so, yeah, comparatively early.)

It’s a retelling of a Japanese legend in which the god of sea and storms Susanoo is banished from heaven and falls to earth. There, he meets an impoverished peasant family whose eight daughters have been devoured by a dragon – which he promptly vows to slay.

But, alternated with Susanoo’s chapters, we get the point of view of the dragon and each of the eight women he devours one by one, with something like love? or desire?

So: we have this balance between the power of Susanoo and the reverence he gets, and the low status of the eight daughters, who are each devoured on their wedding night, as they’re given one after the other to the same man in payment for the devouring of the one before. They are accorded the same status by the narrative: in fact, the daughters are elevated by their devouring, into an opponent worthy of Susanoo, as they become one with the dragon (their consciousnesses all, apparently, remaining, so the dragon’s mind is eventually a cacophony of voices).

There are, even, some equivalences drawn between Susanoo and the unnamed daughters. The story of Susanoo’s mother, who becomes the earth, sees her abused by her jealous and controlling husband; so that she, too, eventually becomes a devourer. The Grass-Cutting Sword, then, is a tale of women who become monsters as a response to the objectifying gaze of men. It’s a tale that gives a voice to those women, who we see throughout mythology (Grendel’s mother, Medusa, Scylla, Charybdis).

It’s not my favourite of Valente’s works: despite, or perhaps because of, its formal play (the narration of the dragon alternating with the narration of the daughters on a sentence-by-sentence basis), it feels more controlled than her later novels, less inclined to the achingly beautiful flights of prose I love about her work, the sly invention. The Grass-Cutting Sword is an experiment, and feels like it. I wouldn’t recommend starting here; but if you’re already a fan, it’s worth getting your hands on, if only for completeness’ sake.

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Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

Review: The Monsters and the Critics

The Monsters and the Critics is a collection of lectures and essays by J.R.R. Tolkien, very loosely themed around linguistic topics – that is, they range from “English and Welsh” which looks in detail at the linguistic relationship between those two languages, to “On Fairy Stories”, the famous essay in which Tolkien talks about what a fairy story is and relates their power to the story of Christ.

It is, as you can imagine, not exactly a light read – even for someone who voluntarily re-reads The Lord of the Rings every year. And yet, it’s also not as dense or difficult as you’d expect from its age and Tolkien’s own tendency towards archaism: academic writing tends not to age well at all, and the lectures here were mostly given as early as the 1930s. But Tolkien-the-essayist is quite instructively different from Tolkien-the-novelist; or, rather, the voice of Tolkien-the-essayist has more in common with the voice of the narrator of The Hobbit rather than that of The Lord of the Rings. He has decided opinions, which he expresses through logical and above all lucid argument, sprinkled with colourful and/or poetic metaphors like this one, from the title essay “The Monsters and the Critics”:

it is of their nature that the jabberwocks of historical and antiquarian research burble in the tulgy wood of conjecture, flitting from one tum-tum tree to another. Noble animals, whose burbling is on occasion good to hear; but though their eyes of flame may sometimes prove searchlights, their range is short.

It is this wry, imaginative wit that makes Tolkien-the-essayist such a satisfying companion: it’s easy to follow his argument because he knows how to do rhetoric. And his arguments are worth following because they shed light on his more famous works of fiction: in particular, “The Monsters and the Critics” offers a reading of Beowulf as a poem in which “Defeat is the theme. Triumph over the foes of man’s precarious fortress is over, and we approach slowly and reluctantly the inevitable victory of death.” That is one of the themes of The Silmarillion, in which Morgoth the Dark Lord will never be fully defeated; and it’s a mood that informs The Lord of the Rings, too, with its emphasis on death and decay and the passing of magic.

It is, perhaps, a shame that we only read Tolkien’s non-fiction in the light of his fiction. His Old and Middle English scholarship has largely been discredited (although it was always a thrill as an undergraduate to come across a reference to his work in an academic text). I never studied Beowulf, opting for the alliterative delights of Early Middle English instead, so I don’t know if “The Monsters and the Critics” has anything to do with modern thinking on the poem – but for a reader of fantasy like me, it is a reading full of potential and imagination, opening Beowulf back out from an object of antiquarian study up into an actual poetic work with reservoirs of deep meaning. It’s a reading that can be built on, in other words, rather than one that aims to give a single prescriptive answer, and I’ve always found the first kind of criticism vastly more useful and enjoyable than the second kind. In fact, I wish more academic writing was like this: logical and rhetorical at the same time; inventive, poetic and persuasive; solidly supported by a deep familiarity with the material. This is how to do it, surely.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

Review: The Golem and the Djinni

This review contains spoilers.

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni brings together two supernatural creatures in New York City, late 19th century: Chava, a golem created as the perfect wife for a Jewish man from Poland, who promptly dies during the passage to America; and Ahmad, a djinni bound to human form who’s been shut up in an oil flask for centuries and is unwittingly released by a Syrian metalsmith.

Although they assimilate into communities that are completely separate – in fact, Wecker hints at actual animosity – their mutual loneliness, supernatural beings trying to pass as human in a city full of eyes, brings them together. It’s no great surprise when this evolves, eventually, into romance (although not before both of them have embarked on other romantic entanglements with humans). In the best traditions of romance, the novel is interested in harmonising elements of society that are at odds, bringing together worldviews that oppose each other: so while Chava is prudent, compliant, supportive of her friends and hyper-aware of the needs of those around her (literally; she’s been designed to be telepathic), Ahmad is self-involved, hedonistic and resentful of the restrictions belonging to a community places on him. Their relationship is thus ultimately about finding a middle way, about compromise: the kind of compromise that is necessary in any multicultural city, and in any romantic relationship.

So far, so schematic. But: why does The Golem and the Djinni need to be fantasy? Abigail Nussbaum asks the same question in her review of the novel for Strange Horizons:

…would the novel had [sic] been any worse, or even that different, if the cover stories concocted by its protagonists and their guardians were actually true, if Chava had been a young, naive Jewish widow newly arrived in New York City, and Ahmad a headstrong, self-absorbed Bedouin happy to take his pleasures where he could and not think about what they cost others?*

I agree with her assessment that the use of the fantastic allows Wecker to write a fairytale of New York (ha), rather than a warts-and-all representation of what life there was really like at the turn of the twentieth century; and that the novel’s epic fantasy ending does too much violence to the sepia-tinted melancholy of the rest of the tale, generating too easy a conclusion for Our Protagonists. In fact, the general trend of the novel is towards simplification: the fairytale quality of the text, charming as it is, demands clarity, a moral, a single meaning, from a novel that wants to be capable of multitudes. For instance, the novel is interested in the constriction of female lives and desires in history. It shows us several women who are at the mercy of men, who cannot be all they want to be because society prevents it. Chava herself is driven nearly to the brink of a disastrous breakdown because to pass as a respectable woman she must restrict herself to specific domestic activities. And yet, one of the key questions that drives the novel is: who will Chava end up with? And so the text itself does the violence it describes. And not with cute self-awareness, either.

I don’t think that Wecker’s sepia-tinted nostalgia is, in itself, a bad quality for a novel like this to have; it’s just that The Golem and the Djinni is muddled and unsure of its project. Its melancholy doesn’t work with the clear-cut, schematic lessons it asks us to take away. It is neither complex enough nor simple enough to work properly – ironically enough, it strives for a middle way, a compromise. Compromises hold people together, but they sabotage novels. I liked Wecker’s book, but it’s not one I’ll remember.

Doctor Who Review: The Witchfinders

The Witchfinders is the first Doctor Who episode this series that’s felt like it doesn’t know what it wants to say. As you might guess from the title, it’s another historical episode; set this time in 17th-century Lancaster, in a little village being terrorised by its landowner, Becka Savage, a woman obsessed with rooting out witchcraft. So far she’s killed thirty-five women, and as the episode opens she’s killing a thirty-sixth.

One of the things the episode is most interested in is the problem of Being a Woman in the 17th century. So, at the beginning of the episode, writer Joy Wilkinson sets up two pairs of women: the Doctor’s paired with Becka, as she tries to establish what’s going on in the village; these are both women in traditionally male positions of power and/or authority. And Yas is paired with Willa, the granddaughter of the woman killed by Becka at the beginning of the episode; these are both younger women with strong family links.

It all looks like it’s going to unfold in fairly typical Who style: Becka and Willa will provide clues, the Doctor will figure out what’s going on, and everyone will work together to defeat the inevitable aliens when they turn up, in a lovely female cooperative. (Oh, Ryan and Graham are around somewhere, but really only to provide comic relief. Or something.)

That web of relationships, though, is broken by the intrusion of, er, King James I, who turns up for reasons that are never made clear. Symbolically, though, he’s there because he’s the literal embodiment of male patriarchal authority, and as such he comes between these women. He refuses to believe the Doctor’s claim to be Witchfinder General, instead assuming that she’s an assistant to Graham’s Witchfinder General. His one-note insistence on wiping out witchcraft effectively breaks Becka’s budding sympathy with the Doctor, and turns her into a witch-hunt fanatic. And, later on, he uses his power and influence to bully Willa into turning against the Doctor and her companions.

This is all tied into the episode’s understanding of the word “witch” as simply a label for a woman who knows too much, speaks too loudly, gets too clever. The witch-hunts were a form of insidious misogyny manifesting as a way of keeping women in their place, individually and collectively. Destroy their networks, turn them against each other, and you stop them gaining power. (James is not aware of this, certainly not consciously, although in a bit of cod-psychology the episode roots his general paranoia in what he sees as an early betrayal by his mother.)

Which…well, it’s not an original historical reading, but it could have been interesting to see it played out all the way.

Instead, like Kerblam!, The Witchfinders, um…muddles its terms of reference a little. Specifically: we know, because we’re watching Doctor Who, that in fact there is something “not of this earth” going on in this village. We know that there is something for King James and Becka to hunt for. They’re not wrong. They’re just looking in the wrong place.

The Witchfinders could still work, at that, though. But the episode doesn’t just want to talk about misogyny; it’s also interested in interrogating the borders between science and magic. Or, at least, it gestures at doing that. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is a magic wand. Willa’s skill in healing is witchcraft, or it’s just knowing stuff. The tree on Pendle Hill is important because it’s Willa’s grandmother’s favourite, or because it’s made out of Science. The aliens (c’mon, you knew there were going to be aliens) are Morax warriors, or they’re demons. At the end of the episode, the Doctor quotes that old Arthur C. Clarke chestnut about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. We’re almost supposed to read this episode doubly: through the Doctor’s rational eyes, as a mystery to be solved; and through the historical gaze of the villagers, as a fairytale that ends with the destruction of evil.

I love this approach! But it complicates the misogyny reading of witchcraft in ways I don’t think Wilkinson intended it to. By blurring magic and science, it turns these women back into witches. It justifies the witch-hunt by confirming that there was something to look for after all. If there is evil at work in the village (and the Morax seem pretty evil to me; certainly the Doctor makes no effort to negotiate with them or treat them as sentient beings) then can we really blame James for burning the queen of the Morax as he’d burn a witch?

To be clear, I don’t think this reading is meant to be there. We’re meant to think James is misguided, annoying and a bit sad because of his stunted relationships. But this is a recurring weakness in this series: like Kerblam! and Arachnids in the UK, The Witchfinders hasn’t thought through its moral code. It’s interested in stuff, but not interested enough to follow right through and actually work out a coherent thing that it has to say.

(Arachnids in the UK certainly has things to say, and Kerblam! thinks it does. It’s just that the three episodes share a certain…fuzziness when it comes to working them out in the plot.)

That’s two weak episodes in a row. This’d better not become a pattern, BBC. Pretty please.

Top Ten Fairy Tale Retellings

  1. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Of course a Valente novel would have to be top of this list. Her Wild West retelling of Snow White is dark and hard as the Grimm original, but sparser, unrelieved by fairytale’s usual descriptive excesses; it’s a story about how trauma perpetuates itself in systems of oppression. (It’s less dour than that makes it sound.)
  2. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. I really like the lyrical magical realism of Oyeyemi’s Snow White retelling, a subtle, nuanced look at race and gender and how the kyriarchy twists all our relationships with each other. It’s lovely work; unfortunately, it’s tainted by a transphobic ending that comes virtually out of nowhere.
  3. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik. Novik pulls off the tricky feat of expanding and enriching her source material (Rumpelstiltskin) to speak about female agency while retaining its essential fairytale quality – its emphasis on words and promises and names and deep elemental magic.
  4. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents – Terry Pratchett. This is actually a very dark novel considering it’s one of Pratchett’s ventures into YA; it channels the Germanic Gothickry of the Grimm fairy tale it’s based on (The Pied Piper of Hamelin). It’s also a lot of fun, though, the horror carried along by Pratchett’s wit and humanity.
  5. Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett’s witches are always great fun, and their practicality makes for a funny, incisive critique of the unrealistic perfection of fairy tales and the danger of making simple stories out of messy lives.
  6. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi. This is an interesting book, a novel in short stories about a writer whose character comes to life. It’s a take on the Bluebeard myth, that favourite of feminist writers everywhere; expect stories that are fierce and witty and uncompromising.
  7. The Sandman – Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s graphic novel series is really based on a jumble of sources that owes only a little to the original stories of the Sandman. But it is interested in traditional fairy tale structures, and it has the darkness of fairy tale, and I like it so I’m counting it.
  8. The New Moon’s Arms – Nalo Hopkinson. This is another recent read, and it’s here because I read it as a selkie story; it’s open-ended enough that there are other possible readings. I enjoyed it mainly because of the way its fantastic elements are allowed to coexist with complex characterisation – our heroine is unlikable in many ways (including her rooted homophobia and biphobia, which the narrative is careful to condemn) without being irredeemable.
  9. Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente. Deathless isn’t my favourite of Valente’s novels: her retelling of the Russian fairy tale Koschei the Deathless is too loose and unfocused, even slightly affectless, for me. Still, it’s Valente, which makes it worth one read at least.
  10. Cinder – Marissa Meyer. I found this cyberpunk YA retelling of Cinderella really fascinating when I read it a few years ago: its futuristic New Beijing setting felt lived-in, convincing, busy with all the messinesses of ordinary life under capitalism (although I have no idea how superficial or not its Asian elements are). As an update of Cinderella, it’s also smart and feminist – or, at least, that was the impression I got four years ago.

(The prompt for this post came from the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)