JUNE 8, 2011
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.) Of fairy tales, Maguire says, “We know what we’re in for and, of course, we also don’t, for fairy tale has more than one method by which to cast a spell.” The characters in these fairy tales all pull what they need from the fairy tale’s magic trunk, and we can’t wait to see each one brought out. And as Maguire notes, the stories come packed with all the requisites:
The slipper, the spindle, the seashell, the sword. The coach, the comb, the cauldron, the cape. The apple, the bread, and the porridge. And look, even simpler things in the dusty shadows, from earlier iterations of these tales. The feather, the stone, the bucket of water; the knife, the bone, the bucket of blood.
It is also clear that the authors, having internalized the rules of the fairy tale form, have made full use of the instruments at their disposal. As Shelley Jackson says in her version of “The Six Swans,”
Women are trouble — if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches — watch out for witches. And their daughters.
Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help — from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet … You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them. Children had better watch out.
Not all of the source material will be familiar to readers, and not every writer knows how to manage this experiment. Many American readers will be unfamiliar with the witch prototype of Baba Iaga (best handled in Joy Williams’ “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” in which the ornithologist John James Audubon cuts a frightening figure). And it is unlikely that everyone will recognize the eerily macabre yet luminous lesser-known stories of the Brothers Grimm. The story of the Six Swans is especially lovely, and gorgeously expanded in Michael Cunningham’s version, in which the last of the brother-swans, left with one wing intact because of his unfinished tunic, has to make his way in the world, often frequenting bars that “cater to people who were only partly cured of their spells and hexes, or not at all.” Each writer has slightly distorted and warped their inspirations, and familiar characters take new and frightening forms: the Six Swans become dancing pigeon feathers on a city street, and Kevin Brockmeier and Neil LaBute’s versions of “Rumpelstiltskin” both feature Rumpelstiltskin as a fractured, damaged man, torn in two and seething with rage.
In certain stories, one senses that the authors would rather shake off undue influence than give in to inspiration. Though Timothy Schaffert’s “The Mermaid in the Tree” is lovely, spackling macabre modern touches onto “The Little Mermaid” somehow dulls the original story’s impact. Similarly, Karen Brennan’s version of “The Snow Queen” uses Andersen’s tale as embellishment on a rote account of twentysomething listlessness in Brooklyn. Lucy Cohen’s deconstruction of “The Tinder Box” turns a story of ingenious heroism into a tale of psychotic comeuppance. Every story in this collection is brushed with an element of danger, either sexual or violent, but making those undertones more blatant and “adult” detracts from a story’s success. Such is the case of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Blue-bearded Lover,” where Bluebeard’s abusive ways are reinterpreted as a feminist struggle for sexual power.
Even at their most ominous, fairy tales are not meant to be exposés; instead, they should be fables of possibility. Even if you cannot imagine a house made of candy, or slippers made of glass, the very attempt wills these objects into a new kind of reality, a realm of “what if” options, each more bizarre and enticing than the last. And the most frightening are those into which you project yourself, where the protagonists are led into danger by fantasies that would lure you in, too. As children, seeing Hansel and Gretel fall prey to a house of sweets, or seeing Little Red going flower-picking with a friendly wolf, filled us with dread: we could all have made the same mistakes! The colorful enticements and dangers are enough to make any child shiver with fear and delight.
Bernheimer’s anthology is itself a kind of house of sweets. Kelly Link’s “Catskin” is a frightening story of what happens when children disobey their mothers. Francine Prose’s version of “Hansel and Gretel” becomes a Rebecca-esque meditation on a young wife’s first meeting with her husband’s older, witch-like lover; where Gretel might have merely trembled, Prose lets her heroine simmer with doubts, flagellating herself for “simply being young and with every reason not to act like such a quivering blob of Jell-O.” The various takes on Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard imagine marriage as a strange, dark mansion full of distorting mirrors and secret rooms demanding to be opened. In Rikki Ducornet’s “Green Air,” the little details of a husband’s desk drawer — “his sharp pencils and pens … the small brass instruments with which he navigates the streets … a box of matches she pockets without thinking” — are little markers of impending violence and rage. Jim Shepard’s “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay,” a take on one of Italo Calvino’s folktales, is a desperately quiet, aching story of alienation from one’s family. But the story that goes the farthest in its exploration of domestic horror is John Updike’s “Bluebeard in Ireland.” A man takes a road trip with his young, third wife, and somewhere along the way they get hopelessly lost. As the new wife moans by the side of the road, the husband suddenly finds himself flooded with images of her death and decay.
He pictured it, her never moving. Her body would weaken and die within a week; her skin and bones would be washed by the weather and blend into the earth like the corpse of a stillborn lamb. Only the sheep would witness it.
What Updike narrates, in a few brief pages, is the possibility that this man, quite unwittingly, is just as malevolent and murderous as Bluebeard, his wife just as unsuspecting and innocent as the man’s young bride. Whatever distance you might feel as an adult reader melts away in the face of this transformation. The murderous husband has a heart, an imagination; the innocent wife, a cloying vulnerability, an insufferable neediness. Updike finds new relevance in one of the oldest and most deplorable fairy tales; this is what it means to refresh a form.
Kudos to all the writers: it is enormously difficult to write a fairy tale, because the very best ones don’t seem to have authors at all. Instead, they seem born parentless, out of some kind of primordial storytelling ooze. (The curse of the form’s progenitors is that they all seem so small next to their creations.) Fairy tales are powerful because they are removed from normal life; they either transport us entirely, or displace us enough to make us see our world as profoundly different, newly strange and wondrous to jaded eyes. They expose a chasm between the world of possibilities that we never see and the world of impossibilities we learn to accept. Bernheimer notes in her introduction that, to her mind, the “proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent.”
We cannot write the same stories as we used to — they would either prove so grotesque that we couldn’t stomach them (such as Joyelle McSweeney’s “The Warm Mouth,” told through the gooey, hybrid body of a beast), or so sugar-coated that their sweetness would prove overpowering. But the best stories in this collection tread softly through their fairy tale context, using what worked for the early storytellers and weaving in what modern literature has taught us. In these, the flickers of fantasy emerge naturally, coaxed out in the act of storytelling.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me reminds us of the way fairy tales can alarm and delight us in the same breath, of what has kept the form eternally intriguing. As the narrator says in Jim Shepard’s new fairy tale, “I’ve always been interested in the unprecedented. I just never got to experience it that often.”