Review No.97 – Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World – Patricia A. McKillip

Tachyon, 2012

A woman whose anger calls down storms. A wizard returning a stolen treasure before it destroys him. A girl so obsessed with magic that she reaches into the dreams of a city. This anthology ranges from the far future to the distant past, from forests to cityscapes to places that are entirely elsewhere. All are wreathed in ethereal fantasy that makes even the stolidly familiar seem strange, extraordinary and unexpected.

This collection of sixteen previously published short stories spans almost thirty years of McKillip’s career, closing with her 2004 speech on fantasy and inspiration. Given that McKillip is an author I personally sort of worship, it was a particular delight to get my hands on this, her latest publication. It is every bit as magical as I could have hoped, with some stories familiar and others brand new to me. I can only agree with Charles de Lint when he says in his introduction to the anthology that, ‘she’s one of the few writers I’ve read who hasn’t witten a bad book. I don’t think she has it in her.’

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.51 – The Gay Goss-Hawk

Fairy tales are usually not, in my experience, awfully romantic. When people say something is a fairy tale ending, they mean the traditional sum up of ‘happily ever after’, but let’s be honest here – how many marriages in these stories look like they have any chance of working out? How much narrative time is devoted to the central couple even talking to each other? So when a fairy tale manages to convince me this is genuinely love, it’s an accomplishment. Before anyone gets their hopes up, I should warn you that the title of this week’s is a tad misleading – ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is a fairy tale about forbidden love, but the lovers aren’t literally gay. Though I suppose the bird might be. Who knows?

Anyway. The story begins when an English lady and a Scottish lord meet at the court of the English king. She is lonely and unhappy because her father has recently got himself married to a woman who hates her, and her seven brothers can’t be bothered defending her. The lord is gay in the sense that he’s happy (this book was published in 1965) and he’s so kind and good-natured that falling for him is effortless. As pledges of their love, he gives her his gold ring and she gives him her blue ribbon tied in a lover’s knot. The only thing left to do is ask her family for their approval. Her father has proved himself incapable of protecting her from the malice of his own wife, but given the chance to make amends, you’d think he’d agree, right?

You’d be WRONG. He and her brothers all got together a while ago to plan out her life and the next step is to marry her off to an ancient English lord who’s stupid rich and can give them the political influence they crave. Plus, her boyfriend is Scottish! That’s the historical equivalent of the bad boy in the black leather jacket! The girl is taken from court so she can’t even see him any more, and with her gone, he sees no point in remaining, so returns to his castle in the north.

While he broods there on lost love, there is only one thing that brings him pleasure – a goss-hawk with a pretty voice and a quick mind that soon becomes his most constant companion. It also gives him an idea. He writes a letter to his love and sends it to her by goss-hawk express, with the love knot draped around his neck to prove to her who sent it.

The bird is so clever that when it arrives at the lady’s home in England it hides the letter under its wing so the wrong person won’t notice it. Then, when the lady and her handmaidens leave home to attend church, it bursts into song so that she’ll look up. She’s the only one who could know what the blue ribbon means. Urging her handmaidens to go on ahead, she quickly runs back to the goss-hawk’s tree, and the letter is dropped into her hand. What her Scottish lord has written just about breaks her heart, and it brings out her inner steel. Her family want to stop her marrying her true love? Let them just try.

That is essentially what she says when she sends the goss-hawk back with a letter of her own. Then she retreats to her room. Her handmaidens return from church some time later, worried by her absence, and find her lying on her bed so ill she says she’ll die. Her father is brought promptly to her side and is petitioned for one last favour. “Do not ask for your Scottish laird,” is his immediate response. “Anything else I will promise to you, whatever it may be. But rather than see you wedded to yon proud Scottish laird I’d see you lying dead!” Thereby proving that he and her stepmother are a perfectly matched couple of appalling parents.

For his daughter, however, this reaction is not unexpected. Her last request is that her brothers carry her to Scotland to be buried – that Mass be sung over her body at the first church they come to, that the bells be tolled at the second, and that they lay her out in the churchyard of St. Mary’s. Her father agrees that it will be done. Late that night, while everyone else is sleeping, the lady creeps from her bed and mixes up the strongest sleeping draught she can. Once it is drunk, she returns to bed and waits.

Come morning she is found so limp and still that everyone believes her to be dead. Everyone, that is, apart from her stepmother, who pricks the corpse with a pin and drips boiling wax on her bare skin just to be sure. The lady remains lifeless. Her maidens cover her in white, her brothers build a bier to carry her coffin, and the promised procession begins. In the churchyard of St. Mary’s, though, where her brothers were told to lay down her body and keep watch over her through the night, a hundred spearmen appear out of the dark and the Scottish lord steps forward to take her hand. At that touch, she springs brightly to life. “Go home!” she tells her brothers, “for you’ve fetched me where I want to be!”

Her brothers are outraged by her scheming ways and the mistaken grief she has put her family through, but her inner steel holds strong. “Take my love to my father,” she tells them, “though he said he’d rather I were lying dead than married to my Scottish laird. But I send no love to my cruel stepmother for the sharp silver pin she stuck me with and the hot, boiling wax she burned me with, for to her I wish nothing but woe!” And she rides off with her lover to finally marry, the goss-hawk flying at their side.

It takes a true lady to deliver such a stinging ‘screw you!’ to the people who failed her. It’s interesting to see a father’s failure actually addressed for once, instead of being piled entirely onto the nearest stepmother. ‘The Gay Goss-Hawk’ is taken from Sorche Nic Leodhas’s collection Thistle and Thyme, which is full of young women figuring out how to get past stupid obstacles, but the sheer cunning of this Romeo and Juliet inversion is very hard to beat.

Reviewing Who – Battlefield

Doctor: Sylvester McCoy

Companion: Sophie Aldred

Script writer: Ben Aaronovitch

Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Director: Michael Kerrigan

Originally aired: 6th September 1989-27th September 1989

Episode 1: Some stories begin on alien planets, with death and peril and inappropriate costuming. Others exude mystery, in gloomy corridors where anything could happen. This one opens with a nice retiree couple browsing a plant nursery. No aliens are in sight, but the ex-military gent chivalrously carrying his wife’s purchases and complaining about inefficient salesmen is awfully familiar…it’s the Brig! Everybody stop right there and cheer! Having followed a complicated route to retirement (see ‘Mawdryn Undead’ in the Davison era), he’s now living the quiet life with his wife Doris, leaving UNIT in the hands of Brigadier Winifred Bambera – a curt, capable woman currently trying to keep a nuclear missile convoy on the road despite dodgy weather, mysterious communication failures and irate archeologists.

This isn’t a show about UNIT, though, this is Doctor Who, so let’s catch up with the latest regeneration. Doctor No.7 is a very different man to his predecessor. He is enigmatic and intellectual, with far quieter taste in fashion, though he does like to advertise his aura of mystery with question-mark accessories. His companion Ace is a rebellious teenager with a deep and abiding love for blowing things up, who insists on calling him ‘Professor’. They get along much better than you might think, but they do have their occasional disagreements, like when Ace wanders into the console room to find all the lights off and the Doctor deciphering a creepy-sounding distress message. “Wherever it’s coming from,” she tells him, “I don’t think we want to go there.” “Too late,” the Doctor tells her, “we’ve already arrived.”

They have materialised in a stretch of lovely and entirely uninformative woodland. In this era the TARDIS isn’t much cop for short hops, so they try to thumb a lift with the first vehicle that passes – that being Bambera’s UNIT van. She ignores them. Luckily the next car along is more friendly. It belongs to a local archaelogist who is happy to chat and is completely unfazed when an explosion goes off somewhere nearby. The area, he explains, is a military firing range. Not to worry!

He’s wrong of course. It’s raining men! Or at least heavily armed warriors in gender neutral armour! War from another world has started bleeding into the countryside and that means there’s every reason to worry, especially as the convoy has become stuck near Lake Vortigen, the site of the archaelogical dig. This is where the Doctor and Ace are dropped off. The Doctor produces two old UNIT personnel cards to fudge their way into the temporary base, using a photo that’s a few regenerations out of date. Ace is given Elizabeth Shaw’s ID and told to ‘think like a physicist’. UNIT security being what it is, the only person to see through this cunning plan is Bambera, who’s pretty pissed off. For once, though, there are reasons. Her second in command, Sergeant Zbrigniev, served under Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and he remembers when the Doctor regenerated. He also remembers the chaos that inevitably followed. As he puts it, “whenever this Doctor turns up, all hell breaks loose.”

The Brig himself, meanwhile, is busy in the gardens of his pretty country house. There’s flowers and sunshine and Doris is bringing out a tea tray, it’s all very civilised. Then a telephone call comes through from Geneva, bringing word of the Doctor. Doris doesn’t know what that means, but the Brig does. It means he’s already on his way.

Bambera drops the Doctor and Ace off at the local hotel, where Ace immediately befriends a punky teenager at the bar, bonding over a shared love of explosives. Bambera, meanwhile, heads off again to look for the giveaway blue police box. She discovers it and an otherworldly invasion at the same time when she is attacked by four knights at the same time. Just to make things even more confusing, they are also attacking each other, and as they are all in armour she has no idea which side is which.

Ah, knights with swords and high-tech guns. I love you, Doctor Who.

Bambera fights her way out of there, only to find her truck’s been wrecked. She has to walk all the way back to the hotel, where the Doctor is examining a relic from the dig: an ancient scabbard hanging on the wall that is burning hot to the first touch, then cold under his hands. The barkeep’s wife may be blind, but she feels its presence. Sometimes, she confides, it’s like it’s waiting for something…or someone.

Outside, Ace and her new friend Shou Yuing are talking dynamite. As you do. Ace is relating the story of how she once blew up her school’s art room, punctuating the punchline with a grandiose ‘BOOM!’, when – with impeccable timing – a knight crashes through the roof of the hotel brewery right behind them. The Doctor strides off to investigate, the girls trailing curiously behind him. They find a man in armour sprawled against the wall amidst the debris. The Doctor pulls off his helmet and the knight stirs, proving that he is alive, conscious and ridiculously pretty. He recognises the man in front of him at once but the name he uses is not ‘Doctor’, or even ‘Professor’. It’s ‘Merlin’. When Ace tells him he’s got it wrong, he politely disagrees.

ANCELYN: Oh, he has many names, but in my reckoning he is Merlin.

DOCTOR: Do you recognise my face, then?

ANCELYN: No, not your aspect, but your manner that betrays you. Do you not ride the ship of time? Does it not deceive the senses, being larger within than without? Merlin! Cease these games, and tell me truly: is this the time?

Once they finally convince him that the Doctor genuinely has no idea what he’s on about, Ancelyn clarifies. The knights have followed the call of Excalibur. They await the awakening of Arthur, who will lead them to war. Now the Doctor finally realises what’s going on: bad news. Really bad news.

This is the junction at which Bambera arrives, freaked out and holding a gun, quite happy to arrest them all. What she isn’t ready to handle is the arrival of more knights, fully armed and ready to kill.

Episode 2: Bambera tries to arrest them too, and when that fails she opens fire. The bullets do exactly nothing. Did she not get the memo when she joined UNIT? The bullets never work. There is a testosterone-infused sneer-off between Ancelyn and the leader of this new gang, who is no other than Mordred. There is history there. Mordred intends to kill them all, but then Ancelyn reveals the presence of Merlin, and the Doctor quickly plays along. “Go,” he orders, “before I unleash a terrible something on you!” Mordred, channeling a thwarted toddler, stalks sulkily away, warning them to just wait until his mum gets here. Never fear, Mordred, she’s on her way.

With a respite from immediate death, the Doctor swoops out, Ace and his sort of volunteer companion Shou Yuing on his heels. That leaves Bambera with no one to grab for answers but Ancelyn, who unwisely tells her he doesn’t talk to peasants. Her patience only stretches so far. She throws him to the ground to let off a little rage, and UNIT training comes good for some things because when it comes to wrestling he’s completely outclassed. When he’s properly trounced, she handcuffs him and shoves him into the hotel, announcing she’s now in charge.

She’s wrong. The person really in charge of this mess is on their way, and I don’t mean the Brig. In the ruins of a nearby castle Mordred is invoking a ritual to bring his mother across dimensions to join the battle. This involves glowing orbs and maniacal laughter, and brings about a violent storm. In the hotel, glasses fall off shelves, smashing on the floor. The scabbard is called by the rip in space and time; it takes everything the Doctor’s got to hold onto it. Morgaine uses her sorcery to contact him directly, warning him to keep out of her way. “Let this be our last battlefield.” The lights of the hotel go out, and everything goes black.

The sun rises in clear skies, on a scene of demolished lawn furniture. Ancelyn and Bambera are asleep, slumped together in unlikely harmony on a sofa; the Brig is enjoying sunrise en route in an army chopper. The peace doesn’t last, of course. The Doctor’s first port of call is the dig beside the lake, where the scabbard was first discovered with a set of runic carvings no one has ever been able to translate. This is because they are instructions from the Doctor to himself, and his handwriting’s awful. Ace blows up the specified point to make a hole, and when the smoke clears, a tunnel is revealed.

Morgaine is also on the move. One of her first acts on British soil is to bring down the Brig’s chopper with one contemptuous flick of her finger. Mordred’s disdain for this world is present also in his mother, but afterwards she finds a war memorial in the town and realises her knights have landed on the burial place of this world’s warriors. She’s furious with her son for not according this ground its proper respect and sends him out of her sight. The Brig, leaving his injured pilot at the scene of the crash while he goes looking for help, comes across Morgaine himself not long afterward and she welcomes him, recognising an old warrior when she sees one. With equal courtesy, he suggests she surrender. In honour of her ceremony for the fallen, she lets him leave alive, though she calmly explains that the next time they meet she will kill him. He makes his way to the hotel, commandeers Shou Yuing’s car with her inside it, and drives off to look for the Doctor – who, along with Ace, is deep beneath the lake inside a half-dead spaceship, navigating their way past doors keyed to his voice, even though he’s never been in the place before.

ACE: Are you Merlin?

DOCTOR: No. But I could be. In the future – that is, my personal future. Which could be the past.

ACE: Right.

In the heart of the spaceship, a crowned man is slumped over his tomb, a sword embedded in the stone beside him. As a joke, Ace pulls on it. To her amazement, it comes loose straight away. This isn’t the way to win a kingdom though; what she’s done is wake a phantom programmed to defend the king which doesn’t mean to let them leave the tomb alive. The Doctor is flung across the room, while Ace is driven into a dead end that rapidly fills with water…

Episode 3: The Doctor manages to get to a console and rip out a key piece of circuitry. This results in Ace being ejected from the drowning chamber and out into the lake, which you might argue is a negligble difference, but luckily she can swim. She emerges in the middle of a conversation about the Lady of the Lake, falling into Bambera’s arms and dropping the sword into Ancelyn’s. The Doctor, though, still has the phantom to deal with, and he’s not doing terribly well. In order to get rid of it he has to crush the liberated piece of circuitry, and the phantom won’t allow him close enough. The Brigadier arrives just in time, smashing it capably beneath one boot.

BRIG: I just can’t let you out of my sight, can I, Doctor?

DOCTOR: Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart! So you recognise me, then?

BRIG: Yes. Who else would it be?

Good point, Brig, good point. The two men emerge from the tunnel, allowing the two Brigadiers to meet. Bambera is not entirely happy about this but acknowledges his authority (and maybe realises he’s better at handling the Doctor than she is).

While the lake is spitting out legends, Mordred is holding court in the hotel, terrorising its owners and getting himself drunk. When the Brig’s long-suffering and still injured pilot bursts in, Mordred’s first reaction is to start flirting with her; when she pulls a gun on him, he takes that as a compliment and offers her a drink. That’s when his mum arrives and demands to know what sort of company he’s been keeping. She catches the pilot’s bullet and crushes it in her bare hand, then drains both the secrets and the life out of the poor woman. Before she leaves, she politely pays off her son’s tab by restoring the owner’s wife’s eyesight, because murder is okay but unpaid bills are dishonorable.

Team TARDIS are on their way back from the lake, Bambera and Ancelyn in one truck and everybody else in the other. The knights attempt an ambush but the Brig, who is used to this sort of thing, drives straight through them. Alert to danger, Bambera turns the wheel over to a baffled Ancelyn and opens the top of the truck to fire back at the knights with a machine gun. Wisely, they retreat. She slides back into the truck and beams at Ancelyn. “So, are you married or what?” He doesn’t get the chance to answer; they drive directly into a second ambush, which just isn’t fair.

Ace wants to go back and help, but the area is swarming with knights. The situation is far enough out of control that UNIT has begun evacuating the area. The residents of the hotel are at first vehemently opposed to being turfed off by the military, but the Doctor flashes some Merlinesque hypnotic powers and convinces everybody to leave in peace – everybody except Shou Yuing, that is, who’s hiding out the back with Ace. The Brigadier grabs this chance to show off UNIT’s new tech for the Doctor, bullets designed for actually dealing with unstoppable monsters, but the Doctor doesn’t think it will be enough. He wants silver bullets and on no other explanation than that, the Brig immediately orders some. Also, because he’s the Brig and he’s awesome, there’s another old friend waiting – dear old Bessie, the third Doctor’s yellow convertible.

While the Doctor is reuniting with his second favourite mode of transport, Bambera and Ancelyn are fighting for their lives in the woods. She’s trying to convince Ancelyn to try a tactical withdrawal, which means threatening to kill him if he doesn’t start running. He’s very impressed by her bloodthirsty intensity. “Art thou betrothed?” he asks, but those romance-wrecker knights interrupt the moment again and the two of them start running.

Ace and Shou Yuing emerge from concealment and start poking fun at Bessie. The Doctor presents them with Excalibur and a piece of chalk. One of these needs protecting, the other is for defence against Morgaine, and yes that’s the right way around. He then zooms off with the Brig in his modified car, leaving Ace and Shou Yuing in the hotel, bunkering down inside a chalk circle. Morgaine is watching from afar. Sneering at the Doctor’s trust in human children, she tests his defences. Suddenly Ace and Shou Yuing start shouting at each other, a fight springing from nowhere, and Ace is nearly backed out of the circle. Realising at the last minute that they are being manipulated, the two girls grab each and hold on tight. It won’t be so easy to break them as Morgaine thought.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and the Brig have arrived at the nuclear missile convoy by the lake, where UNIT soldiers are fighting Morgaine’s knights. Bambera and Ancelyn stumble right into it. Ancelyn and Mordred exchange obscure insults then run at each other, swords raised, yelling. The Doctor, unexpectedly, yells louder. “There will be no battle here!” Mordred gives away the plan; this is not a real battle, only a ruse. His mother has summoned the Destroyer, a monstrous creature that thrives upon destruction, and a chalk circle is no defence against him.

Episode 4: The Doctor, frantic, hooks a sword around Mordred’s throat and orders Morgaine to call off the Destroyer. She isn’t fooled; she knows his hatred of killing, and sure enough, the Doctor can’t do it. As it turns out, he doesn’t have to. The Brig steps up with his pistol to Mordred’s head, telling Morgaine to leave his world or he’ll kill her son. She knows he means it, but won’t let her plans be ruined now. Telling Mordred to die a good death, she severs her mental connection to the battleground and turns her full attention on the girls. Battle recommences. Ancelyn runs forward, sword drawn, and Bambera snatches up one from the ground to join the fight. The only ones not fighting are the Doctor, the Brig and Mordred.

MORDRED: My mother will destroy you!

BRIG: Just between you and me, Mordred, I’m getting a little tired of hearing about your mother.

You tell it, Brig. Bullying the captive knight into Bessie, the trio head for the hotel, where Morgaine has come up against the chalk circle and been rebuffed. She is determined to obtain Excalibur at any cost, even the risk of releasing the Destroyer from his silver chains, though she knows all he wants is to eat this world. By the time the Doctor and the Brig arrive, the middle of the hotel is rubble. In the chaos and distraction, Mordred runs away, but he’s the least of their worries right then, believing Ace and Shou Yuing to be dead. Only, they’re not – not even hurt, just covered in a light layer of rubble and very embarrassed about handing over the sword. The Doctor is fine with that. “Exotic alien swords are easy to come by,” he tells them firmly. “Aces are rare.”

Morgaine’s portal remains open amidst the debris. The Doctor jumps into it, followed by the Brig. Moments later, Ace catches sight of the forgotten silver bullets and leaps after them with a shout of ‘Geronimo!’ That particular word will lodge somewhere in the Doctor’s subconscious for a few more regenerations…

Morgaine is using Excalibur to open a gateway to her own world but switches to duelling as the Doctor interrupts, forcing him to parry with his multi-purpose question mark umbrella. When Ace jumps out of the portal she smacks straight into Morgaine and the sword flies through the air into the Doctor’s waiting hand. Furious and thwarted, Morgaine finally frees the Destroyer from his chains.

Mordred, with impeccable timing, chooses this moment to storm in and inform his mother of his continued existence. Despite abandoning him on the battlefield, she is overjoyed to see him safe, and her distraction allows the Doctor, the Brig and Ace to run. Outside the derelict castle Morgaine has appropriated, Ace hands over the bullets to the Doctor. He loads the Brig’s gun. His intention is to go back, shoot the Destroyer, and hope like hell it’s enough – but the Brig neatly knocks him unconscious, takes the gun and returns to the ruin in his stead. The Destroyer, freed of his chains, sneers at this unlikely opponent.

DESTROYER: Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you for its champion?

BRIG: Probably. I just do the best I can.

He shoots the Destroyer in the chest and the resulting explosion leaves the castle in ruins. Ace and the rather dazed Doctor come running and find the Brig battered but alive on the grass outside. It seems they’ve won…but Morgaine and Mordred have returned to the nuclear missile convoy, catching Bambera and compelling the missile launch code from her mind as Morgaine did to the Brig’s unfortunate pilot. Unaware of this, the Doctor, the Brig, Ace and Ancelyn return to the spaceship under the lake to replace Excalibur in the tomb. They argue politely over who should have the honour until Ace gets impatient and does it herself. Arthur does not wake; he never will. While others fight in his name, he has long been dust.

Coming back to the convoy, Ancelyn sees Mordred dumping Bambera’s body and hurls himself into battle. The Doctor slips between their swinging swords and makes his way to Morgaine, who is about to launch the missile. She intends to win her war by whatever means necessary – but there is a price to that, and the Doctor hurls it in her face. “All over the world, fools are poised ready to let death fly. Machines of death, Morgaine, are screaming from above, of light, brighter than the sun. Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad. The child looks up into the sky, his eyes turn to cinders. No mor tears, only ashes. Is this honour? Is this war? Are these the weapons you would use?…Put a stop to it, Morgaine. End the madness!”

And Morgaine does stop. That is not her form of war. She asks instead to face Arthur in single combat, to make an honourable end to this mess, and at first will not accept her opponent is dead; when it sinks in, she mourns the loss of a beloved enemy. She wants to see Arthur’s body, but even that is impossible, as Ace just blew up the spaceship. The Doctor quietly offers his condolences and leaves Morgaine to her grief.

Her son, who doesn’t know that the battle is over, has his sword to Ancelyn’s throat. Ancelyn bitterly retorts there’s no point in living if Bambera is dead. The Doctor differs. He catches the sword with the hook of his umbrella and sort of mindboozles Mordred with his Merlin powers, then tells Bambera – who IS alive! if looking somewhat shattered – to lock Morgaine and Mordred up before they can start anything else. Then he walks away, leaving Ancelyn and Bambera staring at each other, beaming.

So, it’s over. Everybody ends up at the Brig’s beautiful house in the country, where Doris promptly arranges a girls’ day out with Bambera, Shou Yuing and Ace. They pile into Bessie and zoom off, leaving the boys with a lengthy to-do list that includes gardening and cooking. “Are they not magnificent?” Ancelyn sighs. “I’ll cook supper,” the Doctor murmurs, and smiles.

The Verdict: I almost didn’t review this one; my first thought for Sylvester McCoy’s era was ‘Paradise Towers’, a childhood viewing of which left me with some unresolved fears of being devoured in a swimming pool. Then I saw part of a very old interview with Angela Bruce, who played Bambera, saying she’d love to come back like the Brig did. That she hasn’t is a dreadful shame and a waste, but if you had to appear in just one story, this is the one to choose. It’s everything really excellent Doctor Who should be – intelligent and funny and poignant and diverse. Just don’t look at the science. Really, don’t, there isn’t any. But it has Bessie. It has the BRIG. It passes the Bechdel test easily with fantastic female friendships, puts a black woman into the shoes of a fan favourite and doesn’t try to knock her out of them even when the owner comes back, has one of the most adorable romances ever and a female antagonist who is as honourable and complex as she is formidable.

I remember the first time I watched this, being terrified of the Destroyer (who never actually does anything, but doesn’t do it with immense scariness), wishing I could hop in Bessie with all those fabulous women (whom I very much hope remain friends for life), and wondering what a Time Lord might make for supper. There are many people in Who fandom who don’t like Sylvester McCoy’s era, but I don’t really remember his bad stories. I remember the ones like ‘Battlefield’. Because when he was good, he was amazing, and so was everyone with him. Join me next month for the end of his era, when a new incarnation faces off against an old adversary, impersonates Frankenstein’s monster, and goes searching for just the right pair of shoes…

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.50 – Snow White

The fairy tales I like best tend to be a bit obscure. I don’t know why ‘Tatterhood’ isn’t a picture book classic, or why ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ isn’t a movie with a wicked soundtrack, but for whatever reason they’re just not on the visible end of your average person’s spectrum of pop culture awareness. That’s both a bad thing and a good one. It means a lot of people miss out on some wonderful stories, but at the same time they can read those stories without preconceptions. The famous fairy tales don’t even need to be read; they seem to exist as essence in the air, breathed in as literary oxygen. And there are few fairy tales as famous as ‘Snow White’.

Only it isn’t always ‘Snow White’ – the version in Dean & Son Ltd.’s collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales is called ‘Snow-drop’. In the middle of winter a queen sits sewing at her window and pricks her finger, drawing three drops of blood. She looks at their brilliant red against the white snow and the black of the ebony window frame, and wishes that her unborn child might be as white as the snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony. She is not specific in how those colours are to be applied. It would be…interesting if her hair had ended up white, her eyes red and her lips black. Has anyone thought of this? Are there retellings with a black, white-eyed, redhead Snow? For the love of literature send them to me.

Ahem. Things do not work out that way. The princess is born with white skin, red cheeks and black hair. Her mother names her Snow-drop, but is not given long to rejoice in her wish’s fulfilment. While Snow-drop is still very young, the queen dies. The king soon marries again and, being of spectacularly poor judgement, goes straight for a drop dead gorgeous psychopath with a talking mirror. Whenever her self-esteem takes a hit, she demands consolation from it. “Tell me, glass, tell me true! Of all the ladies in the land, who is the fairest? Tell me who?” And every time the mirror answers, “Thou, Queen, art fairest in the land” until one day when poor little Snow-drop is seven years old, it swaps sides. Irresponsibly, it tells the queen so. “Thou, Queen, may’st fair and beautous be, but Snow-drop is lovelier far than thee!”

As you can probably guess, the queen does not take this well. She orders one of her servants to take Snow-drop into the woods, ‘that I may never see her more’, but when the terrified little girl begs for her life the servant chooses to interpret his orders as just leaving her out there at the hands of Fate…and wild beasts and starvation and so on. He doesn’t mean for her to live, he simply doesn’t want to take her life himself. The wild beasts, however, turn out to have better manners than the queen; they leave Snow-drop alone. Wandering alone in the wood, she comes at last to a small cottage where supper for seven is laid out and a row of seven little beds are arranged along the wall. Seven is an important number in this story. Being very hungry but a responsible sort of child, she only takes a little from every plate, then climbs into one of the beds to sleep, because however responsible she might be she’s also an exhausted, heartsick seven-year-old.

Soon afterwards the owners of the cottage return. Let’s guess who they might be! Lighting their lamps, the seven dwarves channel three bear style indignation at the disarray of the table (who’s been rearranging my cutlery?) but then they actually see their intruder and decide she’s too adorable to turf out, so they let her sleep. They are also sympathetic to her plight when she finally wakes up and explains herself. It’s agreed that she can stay if she does all their cooking and cleaning and sewing and…yeah, the benefits weigh pretty heavily on their side. Still, it’s better than being murdered by an egomaniac. While the dwarves are at work mining gold in the mountains each day, Snow-drop obediently performs her new duties.

But she isn’t safe for long. The queen, her rival apparently removed, soon returns to the mirror for confirmation and is appalled to learn of her mistake. Not content with the trouble it has already caused, the mirror then provides detailed directions to where Snow-drop can be found. The queen sets out straight away, disguised as a pedlar, to rectify her servant’s error of compassion. Snow-drop innocently allows her inside, and the queen wastes no time. “How badly your bodice is laced!” she exclaims. “Let me lace it up with one of my nice new laces.” She pulls the bodice so tight that Snow-drop collapses, and the queen calmly leaves her to die.

She does not count on the interference of the dwarves, however. They soon return, work out what’s happened and cut Snow-drop free. She quickly revives, which comes as a tremendous surprise to the queen when she checks in with her mirror. Vicious with thwarted rage, she disguises herself again and returns to the cottage. This time Snow-drop is a little more alert and refuses to let her in, but the queen knows how to get around that; she passes the girl a pretty comb and when Snow-drop places it in her hair, the poison knocks her to the floor in an instant. “There you may lie,” the queen tells her contemptuously. But the dwarves are on the alert too. They return early that evening and remove the comb in time to save Snow-drop’s life.

The queen cannot believe her bad luck when the mirror tells her yet again that Snow-drop is alive. Why the king has not noticed his daughter’s disappearance or the fact his wife is off playing twisted dress ups all the time is not explained. Adaptations of this fairy tale for books and films tend to kill him off, but the story itself doesn’t. Wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, it is clearly no hindrance to the queen. She locks herself away in a hidden room and makes herself some comfort food – well, a poisoned apple, actually. Then she disguises herself again and goes back to the cottage.

Snow-drop is well and truly suspicious by now. She won’t let the queen in or eat the apple she is offered. The queen, though, is a cunning sort. She cuts the apple in two and eats the safe half, offering the other to her stepdaughter. Snow-drop accepts it. No sooner has she taken her first bite than she falls down dead. When the queen returns to the palace, the mirror confirms the fact, and at last she is satisfied.

The dwarves return home that night to find their ward lying cold on the floor. They do everything they can to rouse her, but this time it seems there’s nothing to be done for her. Still, she looks so close to life that they can’t bear the thought of burying her and instead lay her out in a coffin of glass. Her name is written on it in golden letters. And for a long time she lies there, mourned as dead.

Then a prince comes riding past. Being a morbid type, he takes a fancy to the dead girl and offers to buy. Yep, folks, you read that right. He wants to BUY A TOTAL STRANGER’S CORPSE. The dwarves refuse at first, but when they see he really means it, they basically shrug their shoulders and agree. As the prince lifts the coffin, he jolts Snow-drop and the poisoned apple falls from her mouth. Miraculously, she wakes.

“Where am I?” she asks, reasonably. “Thou art safe with me,” the prince tells her, followed by a summary of events and a declaration of love, all wrapped up with a proposal. Snow-drop, you may remember, was a preteen child when she was murdered. Maybe she grew up while dead, weirder things have happened – er, probably – but mentally she is still a child! I feel the dwarves should really have intervened at this point. They don’t; the prince carries Snow-drop home to his palace and sets about arranging the wedding. An invitation is sent to the queen. Before she leaves to attend, unaware of her own connection to the bride, she asks her usual question of the mirror. Its reply terrified and enrages her. “Thou, lady, art loveliest here, I ween; but lovelier far is the new-made Queen.”

Of course she has to see who this mysterious beauty may be. As soon as she arrives she recognises the princess as none other than her long-dead stepdaughter, and so great is her shock that it kills her.

There are other versions in which the young princess forces her enemy to dance to her death in red-hot iron shoes. It’s slightly less disturbing this way. What is really weird, to me, is how standard this fairy tale remains. Seriously, how is the work of a tyrranical murderess and her glass accomplice so universally classified as a cute kid’s story? Why is it such a cultural touchstone while other, less gruesome fairy tales are forgotten? I’m not saying it shouldn’t be – I just don’t understand why it is. Perhaps because it is so simple it can’t be forgotten. Perhaps because, for all its bitterness and cruelty, something at its core feels true.

And in part at least, I think it’s because we want to believe the little girl can get away.

Review No.96 – Days of Blood and Starlight

Days of Blood and Starlight – Laini Taylor

Hodder & Stoughton, 2012

Once Madrigal dreamed. Of a world that was not torn apart by the endless war between the seraphim and the chimaera, a world where she could love as she chose, even if the man who had her heart also had the shape of the enemy. But those dreams died with her first body and now, reborn as the human Karou, her priority is survival. She is the new resurrectionist, the only hope her people have left. That does not mean they trust her, or she trusts them. Forced to ally with her own executioner, making dark magic to change the tide of a war the angels believe they have already won, the last thing she wants is to see Akiva again. He, however, is fighting his own battle to keep their old dream alive – even if it means risking his own death.

The sequel to Laini Taylor’s gorgeous novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone, this is heartbreaking and brilliant. The writing is every bit as excellent and original as it was in the first book, finding beauty and humour in the darkest of situations. It is all bittersweetness, but irresistible too. The concluding volume of the trilogy, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, is due for release in April next year.

Review No.95 – Cold Fire

Cold Fire – Kate Elliott

Orbit, 2011

Cat used to know who she was – a daughter of the Barahal clan, trained from childhood to join the family business of secrets and spying. But that was before the Barahals sacrificed her to a marriage with a powerful cold mage, who in turn tried to kill her. Now she is on the run with her cousin Bee and her brother Rory, pursued by soldiers, mages and an imperialistic general. She has no idea who she is any more. And if she doesn’t find out fast, she may never get the chance…

This is the second book in Elliott’s alternative universe steampunk epic, picking up where Cold Magic left off with a convenient recap before plunging back into the chaotic existence of the Barahal cousins. It veers in unexpected and sometimes frustrating directions, and I did not enjoy it as much as the first book – my taking an immoveable dislike to Cat’s not-quite-husband Andevai and several other key characters made certain parts a test for my patience – but it allows a greater exploration a fascinating world and provides a barrage of challenges for Cat and Bee. The third and final book in the Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Steel, was released in late June.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.49 – The Brothers Three

I’ve been talking recently about tropes in fairy tales, and one of the biggest you’ll find is the Heroic Youngest Son. The storyteller’s statistics tend to favour family groupings involving three children, and in the course of their inevitable adventures it is the elder two siblings who are most likely to meet dreadful fates. If they survive, it will be because the youngest brother or sister comes to the rescue. Quite frequently they’re not at all grateful, rewarding family loyalty with wicked plots.

The stereotype has left a fair few elder siblings understandably miffed. What’s important to remember, though, is that it wasn’t always like that. You don’t have to look back that far in history to see a strong bias going the other way: it was the eldest brother who was most likely to inherit, and therefore marry well, as he could afford to look after a family. To have a youngest son steal the thunder from under his nose was actually kind of subversive.

In this week’s Fairy Tale Tuesday, however, I’ll be looking at a trio of stories in which all the brothers are heroes – and what is more, they actually LIKE each other.

Story 1: The Three Sons

This first story comes from Peter Hyun’s collection Korean Children’s Favourite Folk Tales. On his deathbed, a poverty-stricken father distributes what little he has left between his three sons. The eldest is given the grinding stones of a hand-mill; the second son gets a bowl and a bamboo stick; and the youngest gets a drum. With these few things, they must make their own ways in the world.

After their father’s funeral the brothers set out to start their new lives. Instead of sticking together to pool their resources, as you might expect, they decide to part ways at the first crossroads. What’s more, they arrange to meet again at this same spot in TEN YEARS TIME. So, no family back-up should they run into trouble, then.

The eldest brother takes the right hand fork in the road and walks until nightfall. Exhausted but alert to the dangers of travelling alone, he climbs a tree, hauling his millstones with him. His fears prove to be well-founded. He’s still sitting up there, trying to sleep, when a gang of robbers convene under his tree to divide their loot. Unaware of his presence, they argue loudly. In the midst of the fight the eldest brother starts shaking the wet branches and grinding his millstones together, faking a storm. The robbers are fooled and run away to find shelter, leaving a chest of treasure behind. The next morning the eldest brother sets off again with his dodgily-gotten gains and stops in the first village he comes to, building a house, marrying a local girl, and getting started on his happily ever after.

The second brother, meanwhile, took the middle road. He is still grieving for his recently deceased father and long lost mother, a state of mind that is not improved when nightfall finds him beside a graveyard. Inexplicably, he decides to spend the night there, and for those of us who know anything about ghost stories, what happens next is inevitable. Something comes walking out of the dark to speak to him. “Come on, skeleton,” the disembodied voice commands. “Let’s take a walk before dawn. Wake up there, I say, sleepyhead.”

This is a goblin, who is both surprised and suspicious when the second brother replies in an unmistakeably human voice. Not wanting to be outed as one of the living in case that means he won’t stay that way, the second brother quickly holds out his upside down bowl for the goblin to feel, telling him this is his skull. The goblin is not quite convinced; he also wants to feel the ‘skeleton’s’ arm. The second brother holds out his bamboo stick. “Very well,” decides the goblin, “let us go. Tonight we are going to steal the soul of a rich man’s only daughter.” He indulges in a bit of maniacal laughter, because he knows what you’re obliged to do in a graveyard at midnight, and they set off. Making their way to the outskirts of a village, the goblin breaks into the aforesaid rich man’s house and returns with the unfortunate girl’s soul. He forgot to bring anything to carry it in, however, and so passes it into the keeping of the second brother to be collected another night. It being close to dawn, the goblin then vanishes.

The young man returns to the village, where news of the girl’s death is already spreading. Doctors have been called in, though of course they can do nothing. The second brother offers his services, on the condition that no one else is permitted in the room while he works. These terms are accepted. When he has locked up the room around him, the second brother opens his purse under the girl’s nose so her soul can re-enter her body via the…nostrils. Um. Okay. Well, it works – the girl wakes up and her parents are so delighted that they immediately adopt the second brother as their son-in-law.

And what has befallen the youngest brother? He took the left-hand road and that leads him into the mountains, where he entertains himself as he walks along by playing the drum. He unwittingly attracts the attention of a large tiger that comes prancing out of the woods to dance to his music. Not daring to stop his drumming in case the tiger gets bored and eats him, the youngest brother keeps walking and keeps playing, until he and his tiger come to a village. The people there mistake the scene for a travelling act and show their appreciation with a shower of money. The youngest brother decides that having a tiger follow him around is pretty good luck after all, especially when the king himself grows curious and sends out a summons. And this is a nice king. When the youngest brother arrives to perform, one of the princesses takes a fancy to him, and instead of demanding impossible tasks the king basically goes ‘yeah, sure’. The tiger stays on at court. Because adorable.

At the end of ten years the three brothers meet to share their stories and visit the graves of their parents. GROUP HUG.

Story 2: The Three Brothers Who Grew Up In a Year

This one comes from Samira Kirollos’ 1989 collection The Wind Children and other tales from Japan. A father who is both rich and healthy nevertheless tells his three teenage sons it’s time to go forth and Grow Up. They must leave home and learn a skill worthy of a responsible adult. The boys are on board with this plan. They pack up their things and take to the road, trying to decide what they will do with the year. Like the brothers in the previous story, they eventually come to a crossroads and part ways; the younger brothers take the roads to the right and the left, heading towards two different villages, while the eldest, Taro, takes the middle road straight up the mountain.

Now, it should be mentioned at this point that he is only fourteen years old. He has never had to travel alone in his life and his father obviously hasn’t prepared him very well, because when he sees a light in the distance he immediately assumes it is an inn and therefore a safe place to rest. It’s not. Actually, it’s the home of Oni Baba, witch of the mountain and probably a relative of Russia’s Baba Yaga, who emerges at his knock in all her fanged, spiky glory.

Taro has, however, been trained well in common courtesy. He speaks up politely, explaining his purpose and asking for a night’s lodging. Oni Baba weighs him up thoughtfully, then lets him in. She hands him a short work kimono and explains that he can spend his year working for her, collecting wood on the mountainside. That’s okay; Taro had no idea what to do with himself and this is at least a steady job. He works hard and conscientously, so well that by the end of the year Oni Baba doesn’t want to lose him. She announces that he can only leave when his kimono is worn out. Panicking, Taro immediately runs out to do as much damage to the garment as he can, but it is magic and refuses to tear no matter what he does – unlike his skin, which is soon scratched, bruised, and sore. He is at his wit’s end when suddenly a little voice pipes up, instructing him to pick up the white stone by his right foot and hit his kimono with it. Without bothering to see where this advice has come from, the eldest brother obeys it, and his kimono promptly falls to rags.

If you’re wondering who and what the owner of the voice will turn out to be, forget it. It would seem that in ancient Japan disembodied voices offering words of wisdom weren’t particularly uncommon, because the story doesn’t even bother following up that one.

Oni Baba, being a good-hearted sort of witch even if she’s not an entirely trustworthy employer, reluctantly agrees to let Taro go. As wages for the year’s labour, she presents him with a small mud doll that, in her words, “will help you and also give you a little bit of fun.” The boy thanks her politely and starts down the mountain. He passes a house on the way that smells of wonderful cooking, reminding him of how hungry he is, and he remarks aloud on it. To his astonishment, the mud doll jumps out of his arms and runs away, only to return moments later with a bowl of stolen food. Taro, untroubled by the questionable ethics of his devious doll, eats up contentedly as he walks down the mountain to meet with his brothers.

They have done pretty well for themselves. Both are glammed up in magnificent samurai robes, one carrying a sword and the other a bow. Taro, who is once again wearing the same clothes he had on when he left home, is both happy to see them and embarrassed by the comparison he makes to their success. This only gets worse when the three of them arrive home and are asked to show off their new skills for their father and uncle. Taro’s youngest brother cuts a piece of rice paper floating in their pond precisely in half. His middle brother shoots down a pear from a distant branch. Taro knows that being really good at collecting wood and getting along with witches isn’t going to impress his father much, especially after that.

But Taro’s mud doll has other ideas. “Tell your father that you’ve become the most famous thief in all Japan,” it instructs him – and, having no better ideas of his own, he does. His father is outraged. Thieving is not an appropriate manly activity! He is about to kick his son out of the house when Taro’s uncle intervenes, suggesting a test of his nephew’s abilities. He asks Taro to steal a treasured pair of china lions from his house. Taro keeps up the bluff. “Of course I can steal your lions. I can do that easily, even while I am standing here talking to you.” Only of course he’s not the master thief. He’s barely finished speaking when he finds the lions hidden in his robes and draws them out to display to everybody. His uncle is not yet satisfied, though – he challenges Taro to steal his money box that night, and sets about protecting it by ordering his servants to all remain awake and seating himself, sword in hand, beside the box. All the doors are shut tight.

That’s no defence against witch magic! The mud doll slips in through a chink in the front doors and sets about arranging musical instruments throughout Taro’s uncle’s house. When it unlocks the door to let Taro in, everybody is playing a flute or gong or (in his uncle’s case) a drum. All Taro has to do is walk in, grab the box and walk out again. This rather defeats an integral part of stealing, i.e. to not be seen. Still, he did get the box and his uncle is duly impressed. “I don’t know exactly what you learnt during your year away,” he says, “but I do know that you certainly learnt to get yourself out of a bad situation.” Which is true. He’s so impressed that not only is Taro told to keep the money he stole, he’s also made heir to his father’s house. And I feel that’s is fair, because what he really practiced during his year away was conscientous hard work, good manners and respect for others. That’s plenty manly as far as I’m concerned

Story 3: The Three Brave Brothers

In this third story, taken from Hamlyn’s Legends from Eastern Lands, the three brothers are fully grown and their father is poor but not yet on his deathbed. He sends his sons out into the world with a few words of advice and a horse each to help them make their own fortunes – to try to catch the bird of happiness, as he puts it. The three young men set off together and resist the allure of a crossroads. At the end of a long day’s ride, they make camp and divide the night into watches. The eldest brother, Tonguch, is first.

And it turns out that keeping watch was a really good idea, because he is promptly attacked by a lion. He doesn’t bother waking his brothers for help, easily cutting off each of its paws as it swipes at him then its head as it leaps. He then cuts off a strip of its fur and ties it underneath his shirt, for reasons unknown. I don’t want to know, I was on the lion’s side.

Anyway. The next day the brothers continue riding until they come to a large mountain which is, unbeknown to them, inhabited by the king of snakes. They make camp at the foot of the mountain and once again arrange watches. Tonguch’s is uneventful this time, but not long after the middle brother Ortanch takes over the snake king wakes up, scents human flesh and comes slithering out of his cave to investigate. Ortanch strides forward alone to deal with the giant snake, and by ‘deal with’ I actually mean ‘kill’. Like Tonguch before him, he cuts a strip off his fallen opponent’s skin, ties it under his shirt and returns calmly to the camp to continue his watch.

On the third day they come to a hill and narrative logic would imply it is the youngest brother’s turn to face the local nasty. At first all seems well, but Kengah is so busy looking out for potential peril that he doesn’t notice the fire going out. Realising what’s happened, he gets up and goes looking for someone else’s fire from which to take a branch – which seems a very roundabout and intrusive way to get a blaze going, but there you are. He sights a light in the distance and leaves his sleeping brothers to go find it. Thus making himself the worst guard ever.

The light, as it turns out, comes from inside a building, and when Kengah goes to peek in a window he sees a group of twelve grim-faced men circling a pot of soup. Instead of assuming that, I don’t know, the soup tastes awful or something, Kengah decides they must all be robbers. “If I retreated now and left them to their evil designs,” he reasons, “I should not be acting right. No, I must think of a trick to make them take me into their confidence. That way I shall be able to find out what they are planning to do. When the time comes to make my getaway, I shall surely think of something or else be unworthy of my father’s name.” Overthinking this much?

He throws open the door and the men inside reach for their weapons. Kengah announces it has “long been my wish to join a band of brigands as splendid as yours.” He then lists his skills, which include ‘drawing out people in a subtle manner’ and ‘the knack of spying unobtrusively’. Defying the laws of common sense, the robbers decide to believe him and clue him in on the plan. Tonight’s the night they intend to break into the shah’s treasure house and an extra pair of gold-shifting hands won’t come amiss. In fact, the robbers make Kengah a key part of their strategy – they lift him over the wall as a lookout to see whether the guard is asleep and it’s safe for everyone to come over.

Well, the guard is asleep – but it’s not safe. Every man who climbs over the wall is beheaded by Kengah before he can cry out to warn the others. With the whole gang dead, Kengah decides to check out the shah’s palace. He opens one door, sees a beautiful girl asleep in bed, and steals a ring off her finger. Apparently THAT’S an acceptable type of robbery. Through the next door is a girl even lovelier, and he steals her bangle. The third girl (we knew there would be a third!) is the most beautiful of all, at least as far as Kengah’s concerned, and he expresses his admiration by stealing her earring. Then he grabs a burning torch from a bracket in the palace gate and returns to his camp to rekindle the fire. Luckily nothing fatal has befallen his brothers in the meantime.

In the morning, the three young men arrive in a town and stop for a spot of tea. While they are there, they hear a crier announcing the deaths of the robbers. The shah, who was understably taken aback to find twelve dead men in his garden, wants to find out who killed them and is ordering all strangers to be brought to his palace right away. This includes the brothers. They are left alone in a room together with a plate of food, while the shah and his vizier listen in for clues in their conversation. What they get is weirdness. Tonguch remarks that the lamb he’s eating was suckled by a dog. Ortanch complains that the grape preserve tastes of human blood. Kengah concedes that shahs are a bloodthirsty lot (hello Mr. Hypocrite!) but admires the masterful arrangement of the pastries.

Having dissected the meal, they turn to their experiences, at last sharing the stories of their eventful evenings and revealing their trophies. The shah and vizier listen in amazement. They then call on the shah’s shepherd and gardener to confirm the brothers’ other claims, and it’s true – an orphaned lamb was raised by a dog and the grapes from which the preserve was made came from soil that had been splattered with a thief’s blood. As for the pastries, the shah arranged them himself; pastry-making is his secret hobby.

So impressed is the shah (and probably unnerved), he insists the brothers each marry one of his three daughters and move into the palace as his sons-in-law. For a while all goes well, but fairy tale rulers are a paranoid lot at the best of times, and when one afternoon the shah wakes to see Kengah fingering the hilt of his blade, he jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young man means to kill him and claim his throne. He’s wrong. Kengah was holding his sword because he’d just killed a snake approaching in the grass. The vizier, however, who is feeling supplanted, is more than happy to go with the shah’s theory, and Kengah is tossed into prison. His wife has to plead with her father (and damage her health) in order to have Kengah brought forth to answer the key question: why?

Kengah, you may remember, overthinks things. Instead of saying “what the hell, I didn’t try to kill you”, he responds with a story – the Story of the Parrot. It goes like this. There once was a shah who adored his pet parrot more than anyone or anything else. When the parrot asked for leave to visit his family in India, the shah reluctantly agreed, on the condition that his pet would only be gone twenty days. While he was away with his family, the parrot heard about the grains of life, which were said to restore a person’s youth. His mother hoped that if the parrot brought his master some of these he might earn his freedom. But the shah’s vizier was jealous, because viziers always are. He convinced the shah to try out the grains on a pair of aged peacocks first, both of which died. Enraged, the shah killed his parrot. Proving he was a dangerously short-tempered individual, the very next day he got angry with an old courtier and ordered the poor man to chew on the remaining grain as a novel form of execution. Instead of dying, the courtier was restored to youth and health, and the shah realised too late that he’d been conned.

Story complete, Kengah finally gets around to explaining what actually happened with the snake in the garden. He even has its body as evidence. Embarrassed by his paranoia, the shah tries to make amends, but the brothers decide to return to their father and live on the land again. Their wives agree to accompany them, and they all live happily ever after without any need for royal power, wealth or the promise of a throne.

The point of these stories, for me, is the recognition that it’s possible to have more than one hero. That sometimes it’s better to work together than forge the lone road like a Stetson wearer in a Western. Familial relationships tend to be pretty broken in fairy tales, all widows and orphans and ill-intentioned stepmothers, kings who imprison their daughters and children abandoned by their parents, so it’s nice to be reminded that there are alternatives. You can find your fortune without losing your family.

The Demon’s In The Double Standard: Feminism in Fairy Tales, Part 2

Traditional fairy tales are drawn from many sources, including ancient mythology, pagan religion, political allegory, morality plays, and orientalia. Most such tales have filtered through centuries of patriarchal culture and show little respect for women, except as young and beautiful “princesses”. Only to be decorative is the customary female function in these old stories.

– Barbara G. Walker, Feminist Fairy Tales

Okay, let’s take a look at that.

A month or so ago I wrote a piece for SF Signal about the feminism I find in fairy tales and how much it bothers me that it’s so easily ignored. Princesses are dismissed as patriarchal caricatures instead of just accepted as people, and the fairy tale girls who aren’t princesses don’t tend to make the cut into popular culture. Which sucks. Especially when they are off rescuing sacrificial maidens or freeing slaves or otherwise being awesome. And that got me thinking about all the other things that people believe about fairy tales that I don’t agree with in the slightest.

The above quote sums up one such opinion. It’s a commonly held belief that fairy tales are, at best, unfavourable to older women, and at worst, that they demonise them. Think the homicidal queen from ‘Snow White’, the malicious stepmother from ‘Cinderella’, the vindictive witch from ‘Rapunzel’. Each of these characters is in a position of parental authority, directly responsible for the welfare of a younger woman; each, resentful of her ward, chooses to persecute her instead of protect her. And that’s without listing the number of cannibalistic witches who appear to spend their days waiting around in cottages for lost children to come wandering in.

These are, needless to say, not positive examples of female characterisation. And it’s true, fairy tales do tend to favour women who are both young and beautiful – if by ‘favour’ you mean they are the ones who generally get to be injured, isolated and/or incarcerated before marrying someone they’ve only just met. You know, just for perspective’s sake.

The fact is, beauty and youth are good currency for storytellers. Just take a look at the female leads of this year’s most popular films and TV shows and, when you’re over the shock of how few of them there are, try a count of how many are over the age of 40. I somehow don’t think it will take you long. Let’s all gnash our teeth for a minute in perfect harmony.

So the ways we as a culture tell stories could use some improvement, but there’s a rather important difference between acknowledging a chronic shortage of older female characters as principal heroines and declaring all the ones we do have are evil stereotypes, just as there is a difference between useful critique and osmosis prejudice. The latter is the type of thinking that sees any and every female protagonist labelled a Mary Sue or a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and every princess in a fairy tale labelled a passive doll. It’s lazy, simplistic, and doesn’t help anyone.

First of all, let’s think about these women as people instead of psychological symbols. In ‘Snow White’, is it entirely unlikely that the queen might feel threatened by the legal heir to what she considers her throne? In ‘Cinderella’, the stepmother has two daughters of her own who are constantly overshadowed by a girl to whom she owes no maternal loyalty. Is it that astonishing she might want her stepdaughter out of the way when there’s a shot at bringing a prince into the family? In ‘Rapunzel’, the witch treats her ward like a possession, locking her away from the world. Is it so improbable she would resent the prince for ‘stealing’ her? These are villains with emotionally logical motives. They only become infuriating stereotypes when those motives are forgotten or belittled.

It’s also funny how people pay such close attention to female villains while ignoring the innumerable male ones. Predatory wizards, murderous husbands, possessive-obsessive fathers – I mean, every second king seems to think it’s normal to lock up his daughters to prevent them getting unsuitable boyfriends – yet there isn’t the same scrutiny of their characterisation or criticism of their actions. They are accepted as the fairy tale staples they are. Neutral. Defaults.

Wow, if I didn’t know better I’d think that was an impossible double standard or something!

Because there is such emphasis on the negative roles for older women, the positive ones are ignored. What about the brave mothers who stand behind their heroic offspring, like the widow in ‘Snow White and Rose Red’, who gives a talking bear sanctuary from the winter cold without batting an eyelid? What about the fairy godmothers of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, or the elderly spinners from ‘The Three Old Maids’, who might not be official godmothers but turn up when most needed and possess fathomless depths of reverse psychology?

What about the grandmothers? Because one of the stupidest things you can do in a fairy tale is underestimate a little old lady. They’re everywhere and they know everything. If you’re on your way to win a princess, or off to battle with fearsome monstrosities, you’d better hope you come across an elderly woman on the way. The beggar with the spare invisibility cloak in ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’, the Fates in ‘The Three Golden Hairs of Father All-Know’ and the robbers’ cook in its alternative version ‘The Giant with the Three Golden Hairs’, the mother of the four winds in ‘The Garden of Paradise’, Grandmother Jaga from ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’, the wisewomen in ‘The Snow Queen’ – I can keep going for a while. These old women test young adventurers, distributing magical items and detailed advice to those that pass so that their choices will go on to great things, most likely involving a crown.

Those that don’t pass…well, let’s put it this way, you really want to get on that lady’s good side. She might be a Fate or a witch, a Destiny or a fairy. She might just be an old woman who’s a lot smarter than you. Whoever she is, the best thing you can do is pay attention to her.

That way, you might just survive the epic evil sorceress.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.48 – The Red Shoes

Storytelling is a subjective business. I believe that the fairy tales we choose to remember, and the way we choose to tell them, says far more about the tellers than the tales themselves. That said, I freely admit that there are some stories that are so unashamedly awful that the possibility of their redemption is beyond the limits of my imagination. Welcome to my Most Hated Fairy Tale list! I’ve already reviewed Perrault’s ‘Patient Griselda‘, Ruth Manning Sanders’ ‘My Lady Sea‘ and the Grimm brothers’ ‘King Thrushbeard‘. This week I take on Hans Christian Andersen, a storyteller whose genius was rivalled only by his glumness. Suicidal mermaids, dead match girls, broken-hearted nightingales…but nothing he wrote was quite as depressing as this one.

‘The Red Shoes’ begins with a little girl called Karen, who is so poor that in summer she goes about barefoot and in winter she is forced to wear heavy, clumsy wooden clogs that make her feet sore. A shoemaker’s wife with a kind heart and clever fingers pieces together a pair of serviceable shoes from scraps of red cloth, for Karen to wear to her mother’s funeral. As she walks through the streets behind the coffin a carriage passes by and the old lady inside catches sight of the miserable little girl. Being a good-hearted soul, she promptly decides to adopt Karen, and being reasonably well-to-do, rehauls her wardrobe. The scrappy red shoes are burned, replaced with nice new dresses. People tell Karen she is pretty and she has the audacity to agree with them, so right then you know something awful is going to happen to the poor kid.

While Karen is growing up the queen and princess happen to pass through her town. The princess is very modern, eschewing a crown or train, but what she does wear are a pair of beautiful red morocco shoes. Karen adores them. When the old lady takes her out to buy new things for her confirmation (her formal acceptance into her church), they stop in a grand shoemaker’s and Karen spies a pair of shiny red leather boots just like those worn by the princess. These fit her perfectly. Red is considered a rather outrageous colour to wear in church, but the old lady’s sight isn’t very good and she’s not aware of exactly what she’s bought until it’s too late. Karen goes through the ceremony of confirmation in a state of ecstasy over her gorgeous new footwear, sure that everyone else is admiring them too.

Well, they were definitely looking. Told about her ward’s revolutionary fashion choices, the annoyed old lady tells her to only wear her old black shoes to church in the future. The next Sunday, Karen goes to her closet, looks between her options, and goes with the red of rebellion. Again, the old lady doesn’t notice, but as they enter the church they pass an old soldier leaning on crutches, and he does. “Oh, what pretty dancing shoes!” he remarks, bending to touch them. “Mind you do not let them slip off when you dance.”

Which is seriously creepy. Only weird people touch a stranger’s feet.

In church, Karen is again shoe-obsessed. Everyone is staring at them, apart from the oblivious old lady. As they leave and Karen is about to climb into her guardian’s waiting carriage, the soldier calls out after them. “Only look, what pretty dancing shoes!” And Karen finds herself dancing, her feet moving on to someone else’s will. The coachman is forced to run after her and lift her bodily into the carriage, where her shoes still kick a will of their own until they are finally dragged off her feet.

The red boots are put away after that. Personally I’d have burned them, but Karen loves them still and occasionally visits their prison.

Some time later, the old lady falls ill. The doctor explains that it is terminal, and that she will need constant nursing until she passes away, but…there is a ball to be held in town. Karen has never been to a ball before. She goes to look at the red shoes again, and thinks about it, and ends up going to the ball anyway. The magic that possessed them, however, remains. The red boots won’t behave like ordinary shoes; they take her in directions she does not choose, dancing her out of the the ballroom and into the street and out of the town into the dark woods. In the trees there she sees the old soldier nodding at her. “See what pretty dancing shoes they are!” Terrified, she tries to pull the boots off, but they are fixed on her feet like they are part of her skin. The soldier’s magic forces her to keep dancing for days, through the fields and woods and eventually into the graveyard, where an angel guards the threshold of the church.

“Dance on,” he tells her, “dance on, in thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and thy skin shrinks and shrivels like a skeleton’s. Thou shalt dance still, from door to door, and wherever proud, vain children live thou shalt knock, so that they may hear thee and be afraid. Dance shalt thou, dance on – “

Okay, winged psychopath person, we’ve got the gist! Karen begs for mercy, but the shoes carry her ruthlessly on. She passes her own door and sees a coffin being brought out, and thus she learns of her guardian’s death, but still she is not permitted to stop. On the shoes compel her, until she is so bloody and broken-hearted that a dreadful solution occurs to her. Passing the house of a headsman (a.k.a executioner) she cries out to him, begging that he cut off her feet and end her suffering.

This he does. The red shoes with their grisly occupants continue to dance while the bleeding girl falls. The headsman makes her a pair of wooden feet and crutches to help her on her way, and she limps off to church. Before she can enter, however, the devilish red shoes dance across her path and she is frightened away. For a week she keeps away, but come the next Sunday she is sure her suffering must be complete. She underestimates the savagery of certain angels; the red shoes are there again and she is once more driven away. This time she loses heart altogether. She hobbles off to the pastor’s house, instead, and takes work there with his kind-hearted wife.

Come the third Sunday, the pastor’s family all go to church and Karen retreats to her room with a psalm-book, too traumatised to try again. As the music of the organ drifts through her window, she cries out “O God, help me!” and is visited by the angel who cursed her so thoroughly. This time he has been sent to transport her, miraculously, inside the church. The organ plays, the choir sings, and Karen is so ‘full of sunshine, of peace and gladness’ that she DIES.

And the story ends. Right. There.

I find it deeply disturbing that Andersen actually sat down and wrote something like this. That the deity of his mind would be A-OK will punishing a little girl for her love of pretty things with mutilation, abandonment and death. Karen is, it’s true, not a fit carer for a sick old lady – but there is a key difference between leaving her charge for one night of fun at a ball, and disappearing for days on end because she was UNDER A GODDAMN CURSE.

Am I shouting? I feel like maybe I was shouting. There is nothing good in this story, only the vilification and devastation of a little girl who committed the heinous crime of wanting to look pretty. But the thing about stories, even the awful ones? They can change. Or someone can make them change. I have absolutely no evidence at all that Alison Uttley wrote ‘Green Shoes’ as a rebuttal of Andersen, but the story from her collection Rainbow Tales (Piper, 1978) is everything his is not. 

“Milly danced down the village street, willy-nilly, where the shoes took her. The school-bell jangled in the little tower, the boys and girls trooped into the classroom, but Milly didn’t appear.

‘Her’s gone off down th’ Fox’s Hollow,’ cried a little boy. ‘Her’s playing truant, is Milly Gratton.’

‘In a pair of lovely shoes, green velvet,’ added a little girl.

But Milly wasn’t playing truant. The shoes were taking her to the places they knew, where the moss was thick and clubbed with golden seeds, and lichens starred the stones, and little red and yellow flowers sprang from cushions of tiny plants. Her eyes opened wider than ever as she saw all the beauties which had been invisible to her before. There she stayed, listening to the talk of the finches, the whispering chatter of insects, the deep wisdom of the rustling trees…They left a memory behind them, and Milly never forgot the lessons they taught her.

– Alison Uttley, ‘Green Shoes’, Rainbow Tales

Guess which story I will choose to keep telling.

Vignette No.25 – Sins of the Rainbow Eaters

Sins of the Rainbow Eaters

We are sinful. We draw in wet cement and eat raw chocolate cake straight from the bowl. With tablespoons. We lie about our ages and take lucky coins from wishing fountains. (Only the lucky ones. We can tell which is which. And the gold coins, too, because if they aren’t lucky now they will be once they’ve bought a jumbo serve of rainbow popcorn each. That’s okay, though; it goes back into the economy.) We sit in the cinema lobby watching movie previews and never pay for tickets to see anything. All the good bits are in the previews anyway. We give other people’s children lemon lollipops and teach them rude words while their parents aren’t looking. We turn up at strangers’ birthday parties like bad fairies from a storybook and steal all the balloons.

I just want to be absolutely clear here. We are bad people. There’s no knowing what we might do next, so pay attention. As one bad person to another – no, actually, as two bad people against one, there are some crimes to which even we would not stoop.

Give back the books.

‘Goblin’? Don’t give me ‘I’m a goblin’. That’s no excuse. Maybe I shoplift bubblegum and pay for bus tickets with glamoured pebbles, but I’m a pixie. We’re compulsive kleptomaniacs anyway when people aren’t sensible enough to buy us off with bowls of cream or a free coffee. I don’t actually destroy anything, though. I don’t rob a library and bring the loot into a stormwater drain when it rains! I mean, how stupid are you? It’s covered with mud.

No, Vix, I am not losing my temper. I just want to make sure he understands.

I’m going to be nice about this, goblin. Give back the books and no one gets hurt. You have until the count of three.



Thr –

© Faith Mudge 2013