Tag Archives: Fairy tales

Five books: In honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week #BBAW

18 Feb


I’m not officially participating in Book Blogger Appreciation Week ‪#‎BBAW‬ but here are five books very important to me, which was the theme for Day 1. I promised Emma of Words and Peace I’d come up with some!  (Follow this link to read her choices!)
1. Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart–The Eastern Church ed. by Bernadette Diecker and Jonathan Montaldo. This book on Thomas Merton’s embrace of the Prayer of the Heart (or prayer of quiet) led me to a wonderful trail of reading on this ancient and still vibrant way of prayer.
2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Still my favorite “classic” novel, and Jean Valjean is one of my personal favorites on my Fictional 100.
3. The Mahabharata–one of the two great epics of India, and again a special favorite when I had the chance to write about its multifaceted characters and story.
4. Novena by Barabara Calamari & Sandra DiPasqua. I keep this book close by, for its beautiful way of prayer, and for the utterly gorgeous images it contains. I became a collector of prayer cards, old and new, after this book touched me.
5. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. This was one of the first fantasy novels I read. This author and this genre are still a regular part of my reading. This novel also represents my great love of fairy tales from all over the world. It’s based on my favorite fairy tale, “The Wild Swans,” and I cry whenever I reread it (the novel, and probably the fairy tale too!)


Thanks, Emma, for getting me to participate, even a little, in this fun way to learn about our fellow bloggers and friends!

#FrightFall Read-a-thon 2015: Wrap-up Thoughts

14 Oct


I send big thanks to Michelle at Seasons of Reading for graciously hosting this year’s #FrightFall read-a-thon. As usual, readathons create some motivation to select something and try to finish it–something I am sometimes slow to do!

I ended up reading two of my planned fairy-tale retellings, Deerskin and White as Snow.

White as Snow by Tanith Lee was indeed a chilling retelling–more of a retooling–of the ‘Snow White’ story. It had flashes of insight certainly, and proved to be very involving, although quite shocking and painful to read. Half of the book was about the Queen and the brutal crime that had warped her spirit early in her life. The second half of the novel was about her daughter Snow White, but at this point her story merged with the Persephone myth and some fairly standard Celtic elements of the Beltaine stag figure. The span of time in which Snow White lived with the dwarfs was the most creative part of the book, and recaptured my attention.  The tone of this part reminded me of War of the Flowers by Tad Williams (which I liked better).

Deerskin, which I didn’t finish yet, also subjects its main character, Princess Lissla Lissar, to terrible violence and betrayal early in the story at the hand of her father the king. She is wholely sympathetic, though sometimes rather stuporous in her trauma.  She must flee for her life, and in the process of survival, suppresses her true identity, even from herself. She assumes the name Deerskin, after receiving a supernatural gift of a deerskin dress.  The chapters where she is living off the land with only her greyhound Ash for company are beautifully and tenderly written.  I will definitely keep reading this one to the end, and I look forward to reading both of McKinley’s retellings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’–Beauty and Rose Daughter.

I have to wonder why, in both these retellings, two such highly regarded writers as Tanith Lee and Robin McKinley chose to subject their main female characters to such brutal crimes, described so graphically.  Whereas often the ‘Grimmest’ of fairy tales only threatens a potential for crime or taboo-breaking in the story, while not enacting it, these tales are merciless and rescue does not come. In the aftermath, these women suffer, very realistically, a total deadening of spirit, a numbness and hollowing out of soul. The rest of the story offers opportunities, however slender, to find their way back to selfhood and a sense of wholeness.  It seems no accident then that fairy tales are one vehicle now, in our time, for holding up a mirror (a magical mirror in White as Snow) to the violence against women in our world, by no means a thing of some mythic or misty past.

#FrightFall Read-a-thon 2015: Some (semi-scary) Fairy Tales!

27 Sep


Fairy tales are just about the right level of “scary” for me.  I send big thanks to Michelle at Seasons of Reading for graciously hosting these delightful seasonal events (and for letting me go easy on the “fright” aspect in October)!  Here is my #FrightFall read-a-thon lineup for next week:

Deerskin by Robin McKinley is just gorgeously written. I’ve already started this one, and I hope to finish it during the read-a-thon.  It is a retelling of Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin” and it is considered a CINDERELLA variant–certainly a scarier version of that story, since it deals with the widowed father’s dark depression and misdirected attachment to his daughter. King Lear is another variant of the Donkeyskin tale.

White as Snow by Tanith Lee promises to be an especially chilling retelling of the Snow White story, with a twist, given my experience with every short story by Tanith Lee I’ve read. I’m looking forward to this full length fairy-tale novel of hers. And what stylish cover art by Thomas Canty! (The lovely Deerskin cover painting is by artist Dawn Wilson.)

Beauty by Robin McKinley is also on my list, if I can get to it. I will be reading this for our Lit Collective discussion in March on fairy tales and fairy-tale retellings.  (Visit our group page on Goodreads for more information about the Lit Collective and other books we’re reading for March. Michelle–aka, the True Book Addict–is also one of the moderators for this group, along with Heather of Between the Covers and Laura of Book Snob.)

Good luck to all the #FrightFall participants and may they be pleasantly scared by their eerie, mysterious, or truly frightening reads to kick off October. Sign-ups continue through Friday (11:59 CST) of the read-a-thon week, and there will be a very generous giveaway at the end, eligible to those who post a wrap-up by Tuesday after the read-a-thon.

Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon 2015: What I’m Reading

15 Apr

Spring into Horror Read-a-thon

Time for daffodils, tulips, and scary reading!  My selections for this year’s Spring Into Horror Read-a-thon are not primarily horror, but they do have their scary or mysterious elements. I am happy that Michelle makes her Seasons of Reading event flexible enough to welcome those who wish to read only around the edges of the horror genre. For this one, I’ve selected some books that may scare the wits out of me yet! We’ll see.

Today is April 15; not only is that tax filing day in the U.S., but it is also the birthday of novelist Henry James (he would be 172).  The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmon’s new literary mystery (just released in March), finds Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to investigate the death of Clover Adams, the wife of writer Henry Adams. Their pairing is complicated by the existential crisis of Holmes who has deduced that he is a fictional character!

Fifth Heart cover

Another Dan Simmons novel, Drood, has been on my mental list for a while, since it combines biographical fiction about Charles Dickens with speculation about the intended ending of his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, whose horrible aspects are magnified by the lack of resolution.  This week I will continue reading A Tale of Two Cities, our Dickens selection for the TuesBookTalk Read-a-Longs group at Goodreads.  Although it certainly has much sweetness in the relationship between Doctor Manette and his daughter Lucie, the Reign of Terror, which readers know will follow the French Revolution and endanger noble-hearted nobleman Charles Darney, casts an eerie shadow over the whole story.

Finally, I am reading The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Editiion, translated and edited by noted fairy-tale specialist Jack Zipes.  This illustrated collection brings together English translations of all the stories from the Grimms’ 1812 and 1815 first editions.  Zipes emphasizes that these versions are closer to the originals that the brothers recorded from traditional storytellers. They tend to be shorter, more clipped in style, and faithful to the scarier aspects of many of the tales. The illustrations by Andrea Dezsö are interesting: they are black-and-white and give the impression of being simple woodcuts (or paper cutouts), but their content and arrangement of elements looks impressionistic and modern. They are also reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustration technique, such as he used for Cinderella, or “Aschenputtel” in the Grimms’ tales.

Original Brothers Grimm cover

Sign-ups for the Read-a-thon continue all week, until Friday (see Guidelines), and you don’t have to have a blog. You can join from Facebook, Goodreads, or Twitter!  Look for discussion with hashtag #SpringHorrorRAT to find out what everyone is reading and to join the scheduled chat.  Only one scary or mysterious book needs to be on your reading menu for the week; whatever else you are reading is fine too.

“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.



If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.


As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!




[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.



The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

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Looking for the Beast in “Beastly”: A review of the film

11 Mar

The driving conflict in Beastly (2011, directed by Daniel Barnz) is set in high school, that daily battleground for adolescents where fragile identities form, clash, and remake themselves. The film retells the fairy-tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a story of teen rivalries, exclusions, and ultimately romance.

In many ways, it is a perfect choice. Appearance is all-important to teens, and the pain of being different doesn’t need any explanation. So when arrogant class leader and likely prom king Kyle Kingson (or, the prince) is turned from handsome to “ugly” by a curse from an “ugly” girl he has callously tricked and humiliated, no teenager will be surprised that he skips school and hides out, while he figures things out. I put ugly in quotes, both times. The Beastly Kyle (Alex Pettyfer), who now calls himself Hunter, is transformed, but only arguably ugly: he seems to have a seriously punk look–bald with tattoo tracery over his face and scalp, scars, and some neat piercings, and spends much of the movie shirtless to show off his abs, which seem to be intact, ugliness curse notwithstanding. Likewise, Kendra, the girl who curses him, played with menacing aplomb by Mary-Kate Olsen, has a commanding presence as the witch, but it would be a stretch to call her ugly. Different is not the same as ugly, but in this teen universe, as perhaps in our own, these two blur.


Vanessa Hudgens is this film’s Beauty, and her character, Lindy Taylor, manages to be both beautiful and different, the outsider, marginalized by her family’s uncertain income and her father’s involvement with illegal drugs. She has had a rough education for compassion, so her perspective on suffering prepares her to be the Beast’s salvation.  But first he has to convince her to come out of her room! She’s been staying at his lavish New York apartment for protection, hiding out from someone threatening to take revenge on her father through her. (In this small detail, the film adaptation loses a wee bit of magic, because the fairy-tale Beauty goes to the Beast to save her father’s life, not her own.)

The tale is well-known, and the film follows its outline with reasonable faithfulness. The “Beast” learns more about pleasing the tastes and interests of his Beauty, he learns to be less self-centered and more giving, and romance blossoms along with the roses he cultivates on the apartment’s rooftop garden.  With only a hint of any obstacle in their path, restoration follows swiftly upon romance.

Although the familiar shape of the fairy-tale (‘La Belle et la B ête’ by Madame le Prince de Beaumont, 1756) is clearly in evidence, the film seems to lack some of the substance that makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ one of the most influential and widely dispersed tales, second only to ‘Cinderella’ for its numerous variations in many languages.

It belongs to a general class of folktales about animal grooms (and sometimes animal brides) whose fate depends on the actions and emotions aroused in a human partner. By discovering the truth behind appearances, the human character reaches maturity and grants the animal character a renewed chance at human life. Along the way, the opposites of beauty and ugliness, kindness and brutality, and humanity and bestiality are played off against each other in subtle ways to prepare for the final transformation. (The Fictional 100, p. 190)

Beastly, the film, emphasizes the beauty-ugliness dimension, and to a lesser extent the kindness-cruelty dimension, to the virtual exclusion of the hallmark dimension of humanity vs. bestiality. When he is cursed, Kyle is obsessed with his ugliness, the loss of his radiant looks and the identity and power they gave him. He is “beastly” only in the sense of behaving badly–with thoughtless disregard for others’ feelings or needs. Despite his adopted pseudonym of “Hunter,” the animality of a Beast is essentially bypassed. This eliminates one of the fundamental internal conflicts for the Beast as well as a significant obstacle for Beauty to overcome and learn to accept.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ can be read for its social, psychological, and even political overtones, which critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and Maria Tatar have done with great insight. Yet the heart of the fairy tale seems  to be one of the big questions of philosophy: What makes us human? How do we accept and come to terms with our animal nature, while still cultivating that which makes us transcend it? The Beast is transformed because as a man he was living at a level beneath full humanity. During the period of the curse, his form matches his bestial nature and he must work to regain his personhood. Beauty, the emblem of the fully human, willingly sacrifices her freedom to save her father. After she takes up residence in the Beast’s castle, her compassion for him soon flows from the same fountain of human kindness and empathy, despite facing the evidence of his animality.


This is shown dramatically in Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece of film making, La Belle et la Bête (1946), starring Josette Day as a luminous Beauty and Jean Marais as the most poignantly convincing of Beasts. In one visually stunning scene, Beauty accidentally observes the Beast in the midst of a meal, devouring the prey he has caught. Becoming aware of her, he himself feels caught, and is overcome with shame, symbolized by the smoke rising from his bloodied paws. No other image could so completely capture his dilemma. She is shocked at first, but understands that this is what animals must do.

When the Beast allows Beauty to return to her sick father (in Beastly, Hunter must face a similar decision that tests his ability to be unselfish), he is on the road to recovering his humanity, but he is only released from the curse by grace, the freely given love of Beauty who returns to him. (Perhaps we are all made human by such grace!) Beauty is also transformed by this act, integrating her humanity with her physical nature, thereby enabling the true marriage with her prince–body and soul.

To the extent that the film Beastly bypasses the dilemma of our simultaneous human and animal nature, it misses an opportunity (one that Twilight takes advantage of through Bella and Jacob). Even Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast (1991) embraced the animal transformation of the Beast. I have not read Alex Finn’s 2007 novel Beastly, the basis for the film adaptation, but what little I have read about it suggests that her teen Beast may have been hairier! I would be interested to have someone who has read the novel weigh in on its treatment of the human-animal theme.

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