Monday, November 18, 2013

Fairy Tales: the Rich, the Strange--and the Prosaic

I loved fairy tales as a kid for their once-upon-a-timeness, their other-worldliness (or at least other than the boring everyday world of the present.) I loved them in the words of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson as long as the translations I had to read preserved their tone of distant times and places. The Disney versions—well, entertaining, but shallow.

As an adult I pretty much abandoned traditional fairy tales and turned more toward fantasy books written by modern writers who had either done their research into “olden times” very thoroughly, or created whole new magical worlds. I developed a taste for either the  strange, the weird, even the twisted, or for richly detailed and immersive historical stories whether they had fantasy elements or not.  Then, not so many years ago, I came across the writing of Angela Carter, and was overwhelmed by her lush, surreal prose and the way she twisted the old fairy tale themes into something far richer and stranger than I’d ever thought possible. Just as an example, in her story “The Tiger’s Bride,” a riff on “Beauty and the Beast,” the heroine ultimately chooses her husband over humanity, and he licks her skin away until her beautiful pelt is revealed. (Sorry for the spoiler, but immersing yourself in her prose is a treat even when you know what’s going to happen.)

When I had a chance to play in the fairy tale genre for an erotic anthology, Kristina Wright's Lustfully Ever After (the one Lisabet mentioned earlier,) I thought wistfully of Angela Carter’s writing and then admitted that I could never come close to that level. Instead I stripped much of the magic from a well-known tale for my story “Kit in Boots,” in which both the boot-wearer and the ogre are nearly-ordinary humans.

An excerpt:

Kit gazed into the miller’s open grave and vowed silently that the name Puss would be forever buried with him. As the gravediggers shoveled earth over the coffin, she thought of tearing off her drab, shapeless gown and shawl and tossing them in as well, revealing the shirt and breeches and, yes, even boots, she wore beneath, but some of the mourners would enjoy that scandal all too much. Just a few more hours and she could shed entirely the life she’d led.
What lay ahead…well, the course of a new life was always unclear, but she knew where to begin the search for all that she wanted, and needed, whatever the price. A certain memory drove her on, so vivid yet unreal that by now she could scarcely tell what was truth and what was dream.
There had been high winds hurling cold spray from the waves on that moonlit night as she tramped along the shingle beach. In her few rare hours of respite from tending the old man, she often walked two miles from the inland village to feel that wind, and space, and illusion of freedom. Sometimes she yearned toward faraway places she had heard of beyond the sea. But this time, a great dark figure on the low cliff above had been watching, clutching his hooded cloak about him so that even his eyes could not be seen, though she felt their gaze like a searing touch.
Kit’s hedge-witch mother had given her little power and less instruction, but enough that she could to feel the aura of fierce desire emanating from the brooding watcher. It inspired a tremor of fear, yes, but a wild, wanton impulse as well that made her spread her arms and let the wind blow her threadbare cloak out behind her and mold her damp, shapeless dress tightly against her very shapely body. Long hair whipped about her face at one moment and streamed free like a banner at the next. She flashed a look of challenge, a laughing invitation, upward to the cliff-top; he raised an arm in salute, letting his cloak rise in the wind like a mighty wing—and then he turned and was gone. Kit had waited on the shingle as long as she dared, shivering in the cold wind yet burning with anticipation, but he had not come.
Even now, by the graveside, she yearned to feel again that aching intensity, that fierce power and irresistible force of nature that might yet be bent to her own desires. She would begin her new life by searching out the mysteries surrounding the man on the cliff. In the harbor town of Rockbay, she knew, they called him the Ogre, but had little more to tell, though he had taken residence in the old castle on the coast more than six months past.


I’ve recently written another fairy-tale inspired story, “Trollwise,” not yet published anywhere, and once again I’ve failed to ramp up the fantasy aspect and, in fact, somewhat diminished it. I even made a subtle attempt to link the legends of trolls to ancient memories of Neanderthals. I must break out of this rut! But here’s a sample:

Trip, trop, trip, trop. Hjørdis stood back in disgust as Princess Tutti pranced across the bridge, hips swaying, the false tail strapped to the seat of her gown twitching. A coy toss of her head knocked the goat horns on her headdress slightly askew. “Oh, Mr. Troll,” she piped in a falsetto voice, “are you there today? Don’t you want to eat us up? Look, this time there is someone meatier than just we little goats!” She cast a mocking glance back toward Hjørdis. “A buxom brood mare!”
Hjørdis would have swatted the silly girl’s rump if there had been enough of it to be worth the trouble. Or, more truthfully, if she herself had not been bound by oath to abide peaceably among these puny southerners. For now. As it was, she took a threatening stride onto the wooden planks. Tutti ran off giggling toward the meadow, from which sounds of pipes and laughter and occasional playful shrieks rose above the lazy burbling of the stream.  
Princess Vesla, also adorned with horns and tail, came up timidly beside Hjørdis. “There truly was a troll under the bridge a week ago,” she said in a tremulous voice. “When Tutti called out, I heard his voice, like the rumbling of stones. She thinks it was Werther, the dancing master, trying to frighten us, but I’m sure it wasn’t!”
“Oh? What did he say?” Hjørdis made some small effort to tolerate Vesla, who was not so spiteful as her sister Tutti. She felt also some sympathy for the girl, who had formed a hopeless passion for Hjørdis’s captive brother. At least accompanying them on their outing, however nasty it promised to be, was an excuse to leave the castle.
“He said, ‘Scrawny bones not fit to pick my teeth! Get you gone!’” Vesla shivered. “But we haven’t heard him since.”
Hjørdis knew a great deal more about trolls than these little twits ever could. More than anyone could who had not known Styggri. That sounded all too much like what Styggri would say, in a humorous mood. If she had not crossed into another world from which there was no return.


Sigh. I think I need a refresher course in the true spirit of fairy tales.



  1. Hey, Sacchi,

    Why in the world do you think you need a refresher course? Both these tales fit the spirit, with a bit of modern viewpoint thrown in!

    I remember Kit in Boots, the elemental passion and the satisfying coming together of two misfits. I think that notion - the one who's not normal, the ugly duckling, the poor stepsister, who is ultimately revealed to be far more than anyone guessed, is a core theme in fairy tales. I hadn't thought of it before, but that's exactly the focus of Cat's Eye, that I wrote about last week.

  2. i loved your excerpts. perhaps reading or hearing fairy tales as kids helped train our ears & imaginations for storytelling ourselves :)

  3. As others have said above, your fairy tale delivery is enviable. Thanks for posting the excerpts.


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