ADULTS WHO WERE ONCE CHILDREN tend to agree: we are who we are because of fairy tales. Once upon a time, they were the clearest — and most just-seeming — of all narratives, even if they weren't entirely real. People got what they deserved. Actions led to results. The wicked were punished; the good were rewarded. The young, beautiful princess was intrinsically good; the old, gnarled crone was irrefutably evil. These stories were more than mere guides to the world as we saw it; they were totemic and prophetic.
I remember a beautifully illustrated anthology, its cover embossed and its pages thick and important — remember feeling there could be no more important text in the world. It would tell me everything I needed to know about how I should behave, and what would happen to me if I didn't. When I grew up, my faith in fairy tales was punctured; the tales' true meanings struck me like slaps to the face. "Little Red Riding Hood" was not about the threat of strangers, but an allegory about menstruation; the intimations of class warfare in "Cinderella" shatter the romance of glass slippers; Snow White's tortured relationship with her jealous stepmother could make any child distrust a future step-parent. The world of adult experience begins to cloud our readings of even the loveliest and lightest of fairy tales — until we remember that these stories have always been written by adults who'd come to know the world's shadows, its imperfections, its disappointments. After all, the life stories of Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimms, and Charles Perrault were anything but fairy tales.
Adults return to fairy tales again and again, to correct the material, to force new realities into old forms, to try and make an inherently unrealistic art form more realistic, or simply to play with its dark magic. In Kate Bernheimer's anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, forty writers have a go at producing new fairy tales. If, as Bruno Bettelheim wrote in The Uses of Enchantment, stories give children ways to symbolically grapple with their fears, these new versions give adult readers a glimpse of what symbolism can do, how tricks and magic spells are put in place to obscure harsher realities. The stories in the collection play with the well-trod methods of fairy tales — static characters; fantastical elements; displaced and transformed versions of the world we live in — but also situate them in a thoroughly 21st-century context. Fairy tales don't translate well to the digital age, because they are meant to be told face-to-face; emerging from the oldest of oral traditions, they are best when related in the dark, in bed, at the moment before sleep takes over and finishes the tale. Devised as quaint amusements of the European upper-classes, full of courtly love, heroism, and the triumph of good over evil, they were called the précieuses, or precious things. Fairy tales were trifles intended to be read as deathly serious.
There's nothing more precious, or more self-serious, than a literary anthology, and so Bernheimer has found the right form for her experiment. Following each story is a brief note from the author explaining their source material and what lead them to develop it. This doesn't mean that every story is predictable, as Geoffrey Maguire explains in his wonderful foreword. (Maguire was the perfect choice, as he took what could've been an exercise in fan fiction and crafted a story with surprising depth and resonance.)...