A few years back, I happened upon an intriguing-looking graphic novel in the excellent Kensington library: borrowed it, read it, loved it, had it abstracted from my book pile on several occasions and read avidly by the in-house team – including the twelve-year-old son, who would normally not be seen dead near anything with Rapunzel in the title. This is the magic of Shannon Hale and specifically Rapunzel’s Revenge, in which the fairy tale throws off all trace of mimsiness, loops up its long braids and heads west… Wild West. Immured not in a tower but a living treehouse on her twelfth birthday, Rapunzel continues to defy Mother Gothel, teaches herself lasso and trapeze skills to pass the time and finally effects a daring escape, only to find the world beyond her forest prison distinctly arid and unwelcoming. Mother Gothel has much of the country in her power, with a monopoly on the growth magic that the farmers desperately need, while extorting crippling taxes. Rapunzel meets bullies and shysters and the hapless outlaw Jack – but with Jack’s fast talking and Rapunzel’s even faster hair, they have the makings of a team, and begin to discover the decent people and the extent of Mother Gothel’s tyranny, and perhaps even how to defeat it. Not that you should imagine this is a smooth progession: Rapunzel falls flat on her face over and over, and endures more than one mortifying costume adjustment and hair’s breadth escape (sorry) without losing hope and determination. In the home team’s words, both epic and awesome.
This post brought me back to Shannon Hale and specifically The Goose Girl, written some years earlier, epic and awesome in different ways. Here the inspiration is a lesser-known Grimm fairytale, in which a jealous servant takes the princess’ place and the rightful princess is reduced to begging for the humblest of work and keeping the royal geese. On the face of it, it’s an odd, cruel little story, full of isolation and humiliation before the final amends – and even these are pretty unforgiving, with the impostor undergoing the horrific execution she had proposed for another, dragged through the streets in a barrel spiked through with nails (doubtless after the Biblical precedent, in which evil counsellor Haman is impaled on the stake he had set up for rival Mordecai in the Book of Esther). Hale works both with and against the oddness, beautifully evoking a believable kingdom in which royal children who are not boys, nor obviously pretty and captivating, are something of an embarrassment – to be deprived of their birthright and used as diplomatic pawns. Ani is duly dispatched as a bride-to-be in a larger and more powerful kingdom, with a long journey through the forest to get there. Along the way, Ani senses loyalties shifting – her vivacious maid Selia is very friendly with the guards, whom Ani finds herself trusting less and less, and increasingly offhand and even bitter against Ani. Then Selia and the guards turn on Ani, and she is running for her life; surviving the putsch, she is still in acute danger from Selia and her allies, who need to destroy the evidence. Ani isn’t persuasive as Selia is, but she still has a gift for making loyal friends, and with their help and some gifts of her own, she may be able to reach the capital, keep her true identity hidden, send a message to the king and perhaps, with more than a little luck, avert a catastrophic war between their two countries. It’s not only first-class plotting and storytelling, but fantasy writing of the kind that’s supremely difficult to pull off, vivid and otherworldy without being in the least fey. I read it compulsively into the small hours, and so did the twelve-year-old; she is chomping through the three sequels as I write.
An even lesser-known Grimm tale, Maid Maleen, is the inspiration for Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days – the original being another impostor story, in which the true princess is locked in a dark tower for seven years with her maid, emerges to find the countryside laid waste, somehow makes her way anonymously to her betrothed prince’s court and even goes through a wedding ceremony in her ugly rival’s place before said rival is found out. Again it’s not the most promising material, but Hale makes of it something remarkable by transferring the setting to medieval Mongolia and making the heroine not the pretty, pallid, frightened princess but her tough and resourceful maid. In Hale’s version, the anonymous enemy who razes the kingdom becomes the future husband chosen by the princess’ father, and maid Dashti soon comes to understand the princess’ absolute terror of him. They escape at last, not to his kingdom but to that of the princess’ former love, Khan Tegus, where they’re lucky to find work in the kitchens and it’s all Dashti can do to keep them there, since the princess hasn’t the slightest notion of either work or self-preservation. Dashti remains loyal to the very end, in spite of the blinding evidence that she is in love with Khan Tegus herself, and is the only one with the courage and resources to face the all-powerful Lord Khasar; and even if she should win that conflict, her life is in the hands of Khan Tegus’ cold, aristocratic betrothed, Lady Vachir. If the setting and plotting are both vivid and exhilarating, there’s a further delight in Dashti’s voice, since the story is written as her diary: intensely observant, wise beyond her own estimation, generous and practical and with a capacity for joy in the least likely circumstances, such as the gift of a kitten in her tower prison. If ever I find myself in an impossible fairytale situation, I can tell you, I want Dashti and Ani (and for preference also Ella from Ella, Enchanted) at my back: we’ll not only be invincible, but they’ll tell the story magnificently afterwards.
Do you start to see a pattern? I do. All of those original stories around beautiful, unlucky, wronged princesses provide the most unlikely ore for today’s high-tensile heroines. Hale’s Dashti is just a herder’s daughter, and not even conventionally pretty with her birthmarked face and arms; but, like her beloved Tegus, we soon find better reasons to see her true worth. In Mirror, Mirror, Ana may be a princess born, but she hides any beauty she might have as the price of her mother, the Queen’s affection: overeating and squeezing herself into unflattering clothes, and hacking off her once-luxuriant hair. Studious, neglected and lonely, Ana has one true friend, the lively and mischievous Pell; so it’s bittersweet news at first that Pell has been selected by a prestigious new Academy in the mountains, and a delight when the Queen decides that Ana should also attend. Once there, Ana can’t help noticing that not only are all of her fellow students exceptionally pretty, but also their studies aren’t being taken so very seriously. Then the school director starts selecting students for treatment with the Beauty pill, and Ana realises that something much more sinister is going on. Don’t look for dwarves or passing princes in this smart, passionate reworking, where even the Queen’s mirror isn’t quite as you’d imagine (although a good deal creepier). Instead you’ll find some very contemporary messages about the value and price of beauty and conformity, delivered without being in the least preachy, but in a compelling fable that deserves a long-term place on the YA bookshelf.
North Child is based on another less familiar tale, the Norwegian East of the Sun, West of the Moon or The White Bear King; but it’s one that has a way of hooking itself into the imagination (mine for sure: I swear I can still remember the stretch of stair on which I first read it, red lino floor, tongue and groove wall, leaky leaded window, steady West Highland rain outside…). Perhaps it’s the basic fairytale magic: the bespelled human animal, the three impossible things, gowns of sunlight and moonlight and starlight, and the unlikely condition that only the true at heart can fulfil; but also (hooray, at last) it’s a heroine who doesn’t just Have Stuff Happen To Her, but goes against-the-odds in search of the prince she almost lost through rash, impetuous curiosity. With all that as raw material, Edith Pattou contrives something that is both fairytale-compelling and anchored in the real: the relentless grind of tenant-farming in seventeenth-century Norway, too many poor harvests and too many mouths to feed; and the iron hold of superstition that might seem laughable now, but at the time made sense of any and every sudden catastrophe. Rose, the heroine, is a doomed child in her mother’s eyes, and so it makes sense for her to strike a bargain with a ghostly white bear, and give herself up for her family’s wellbeing. Through multiple voices – fearless Rose, loving father and brother Neddy, almost-stifled White Bear and almost-triumphant Troll Queen – the old story takes on dimension and colour, and if possible even more poignancy, as Rose attempts to follow her bear prince through Atlantic storm, mid-ocean shipwreck and unimaginable, unforgiving polar lands. Happily, Pattou is a storyteller you’d trust through all those and more, and although at times you can’t imagine how, you know she’ll bring you to safe harbour and happy ending in the end. A modern fairy-tale classic if ever there was one.
With Cornelia Funke’s Fearless, we’re in even wilder territory, and the happy ending is far from guaranteed. Fearless follows the brilliantly-conceived but still darker Reckless, in which born-survivor Jacob and his unworldly brother Will stumble from contemporary New York into a vicious otherworld of predatory fairytale creatures (if they’re not out to steal your soul or drain your blood, most likely they’ve robbed you blind already). On the other side of his magic mirror, Jacob is now a successful treasure-hunter doing a brisk trade in magic artefacts. He’s also in dire need of some magic himself to break the fairy curse that was the price of his brother’s life, and he’s already tried the obvious options, the All-Healing Apple, the Well of Eternal Youth… Then he hears of a legendary crossbow which holds the power either of immense destruction or of miraculous healing, and of course there are rivals who want it for its destructive powers, and a complex puzzle, a tortuous quest and a series of deadly magical snares to be overcome: the odds must be impossible, but what else is left? A year or two back I found Reckless intriguing but almost overwhelmingly grim: Fearless seems to find a happier level, especially in the relationship between Jacob and Fox, the shape-shifting orphan whom he once protected and who is now devoted to him. Fox has the effect of making Jacob a little more human and vulnerable (and, to be honest, that’s no bad thing), but is also very nearly his undoing when a plausible stranger sees Jacob’s complacency and starts paying some attention to Fox. Jacob’s life, Fox’s life and their joint quest become more and more tightly bound, and much as you know it must end well (there is a third volume to come), for a good part of the book you wonder how it possibly can. Tense, intense, glittering and compulsive; I can hardly wait for final volume Heartless.
Don’t imagine though that Cornelia Funke has the monopoly of fairytale darkness: Sally Gardner’s Tinder taps into some of the astonishing bleak lyricism that was the brilliance of Maggot Moon, channelling it into the Andersen fairy tale, The Tinder Box, setting it in the arbitrary, unfathomable brutality of the Thirty Years’ War but giving it contemporary weight at the same time, drawing on conversations with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. The result would be magnificently readable in itself, but is made all the more haunting by David Roberts’ dream-to-nightmare illustrations, black and white with occasional shocking bursts of red – red cloaks, red eyes, red mouths, red wounds. Unlike Andersen’s old soldier of the original, Gardner’s hero (if that’s the word) Otto is a veteran already at eighteen, and has seen far too much of human degradation in four years: the real nightmare of war merges easily with the fantastical nightmare of fairy tale: human enemies, supernatural allies, impossible love, instant riches, sudden ruin and ever-present death. As you can imagine it’s not, on the whole, a cheering read, but unquestionably a hugely rewarding one.
By some way the most unlikely fairytale revision of them all is Cinder: smart crossover YA sci-fi that doesn’t waste time trying to tell you how clever it is, but immerses you wholly in its world – a post-cataclysmic “New Beijing” with all the frenetic, claustrophobic, grainy energy of the current version, not to mention despised and very human cyborgs, barely-human humans, an honourable prince under political siege and a horrifying, world-threatening plague. For every distant nod to the familiar story (put-upon cyborg Cinder replacing her ill-fitting prosthetic foot, or secretly restoring a pumpkin-coloured petrol-driven car, or coming by an unlikely ballgown when she needs it most) there’s not only a wealth of new plotting and intense atmosphere (more or less equal parts artificial light, pheromones, desperate resource and machine oil) but also the steady wrong-footing of expectations. Cinder will make any excuse not to go to the ball; don’t hold out for a fairy godmother in any conventional sense; and while it’s no spoiler to say that she shall go in the end, the ball itself is far from the dazzling, all-conquering triumph you might be expecting… and all the more compelling for that. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the resident twelve-year-old loved it (by torchlight long after official lights out), and also the two available sequels Scarlet and Cress, with final instalment Winter most eagerly awaited later this week.
If all of this inspires you to return to the source, there are of course endless versions available, from perfectly serviceable bargain collections to no-expense-spared, highly illustrated ones. Two fairly recent productions stand out: Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, which combines a storyteller’s respect (and occasional disrespect) for the power of the originals with an illuminating introductory essay, bibliography and notes after each story, and Carol Ann Duffy’s Faery Tales which combines Grimm originals with Duffy originals, teasingly without making clear which is which. Duffy’s tone more often brings the storytelling down to earth – a plain-speaking Northern earth with owts and nowts scattered amongst the sumptuous abundances – along with a few delicious turns of phrase such as the Emperor’s Prime Minister, “his eyes frogging out of his head” as he fails to see the tricksters’ nonexistent cloth. And – have the children gone to bed already? – of course there is Angela Carter, relishing traditional tales of resourceful heroines and irrepressible antiheroines in her Book of Fairy Tales (originally The Virago Book of Fairy Tales and The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales), and using classic tales to hypnotic, erotic, allusive, hyper-real effect in The Bloody Chamber. Helen Simpson describes very well here the maceration and distillation of ideas and influences, from de Sade to the Symbolists, that resulted in what is still an intensely powerful and unsettling collection. The Bloody Chamber casts a long shadow: aside from inspiring hundreds of embarrassing undergraduate hommages, she’s quoted as an inspiration by Sally Gardner (if loftily ignored by Philip Pullman); and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find her on Cornelia Funke’s bookshelves either.
We come back to fairy tales again and again, whether through the cotton-candy smother of Disney or the clever, wry cocktail of Sondheim, the salty-sweet popcorn of panto or the rich and varied invention of much of what I’ve read over the past few months. It’s true that YA readers seem to be some of the best served; but oh how I have enjoyed seeing my own Young Adult with her baleful gaze, irremovable black hoody and apparently terminal screen addiction, utterly rapt in old-new fairytale magic.