Fairy Tale Tuesday No.97 – Little Red Cap

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? It’s become so much of a metaphorical threat over the centuries, at least for urban dwellers, that modern retellings often recast the ‘wolf’ as an all too human threat. As Vanessa Bates wrote in her play The Magic Hour, “all the animals around here walk on two legs”. Be it present day stranger danger or ancient fear, it’s always wise to be wary of what hides in the deep dark woods.

The story begins by introducing us to ‘a sweet little maiden’ preparing to visit her beloved grandmother with a basket of cake and wine, the old lady having been ill and in need of familial TLC. The girl’s mother sends her off with a litany of instructions, ranging from ‘don’t stray from the path, otherwise you’ll fall and break the glass’ to ‘don’t go peeping in all the corners’ when she gets to Granny’s, but no mention is made of wolves. The girl puts on the red velvet cap her grandmother made for her, the one she wears so often it has become her nickname, and sets off into the woods.

Suddenly, a wolf pops up at her elbow. “Good day, Little Red Cap!” he says, instantly establishing himself as a shady character by a) talking, and b) knowing her name. Red replies politely to his series of pointed questions, explaining her errand and unwisely including directions to her grandmother’s house. Cunningly exploiting her self-evident affection for the old lady, the wolf scolds Red for not including a bouquet of flowers with her other gifts. Red falls for it hook, line and sinker.

While she’s in pursuit of the perfect posy, the wolf runs straight to Granny’s and fakes Red’s voice, asking to be allowed in. Turns out he need not have gone to the effort, because all he has to do is lift the latch and he’s in. Granny has barely a moment to recognise her mistake before the wolf gobbles her up.

That is not enough to satisfy him, however. Putting on the discarded nightgown and cap, he jumps into bed and waits for the little girl to arrive. Before long, she does. Her first warning that something is wrong is the door standing open; the next is the sight of her ‘grandmother’s’ fanged, ferocious face. Realisation comes too late for Red, as well – the wolf leaps up and swallows her down whole.

Stuffed with tricked innocents, he returns to bed and is soon asleep. He snores so loudly that a passing huntsman grows concerned and comes into the cottage to check on the old lady he knows lives there. He recognises the wolf for what it is at once and snatches up a pair of scissors to slice open its swollen stomach. Red falls out first, alive and well, then her grandmother. Somehow, the wolf does not wake up. Was one of his victims on soporifics? Is the huntsman just so good at impromptu surgery? Who can say.

Granny and Red, understandably resentful about the whole ‘eaten alive’ thing, fetch stones and fill the wolf’s stomach with those instead. The weight of them kills him. The huntsman then skins him, the grandmother eats her cake, and Red learns to never trust a wolf again. It’s a lesson that will come in handy.

Because, wait. THERE’S MORE.

Some time after the incident with the wolf in Granny’s clothing, Red is retracing her steps with another basket of get well cake when she encounters a second wolf. Not falling for his sweet talk this time around, she runs straight to her grandmother’s house and locks the door. The pair of them then lie low while the wolf tries the same con as its predecessor. Failing that, it jumps on the roof to wait for the moment when Red must inevitably leave the house. This went from con to siege situation very fast.

What he hasn’t counted on is that these ladies are veterans now. Granny orders Red to fetch the water in which she cooked yesterday’s sausages and has her pour it into the stone trough at the front of the house. The smell is so enticing that the wolf leans too far over the edge of the roof and falls. He drowns in the trough. Compared to cutting open the first wolf’s stomach, this plan was genius. Then ‘Little Red went merrily on her way home, and no one harmed her.’

Even taken at its most literal message (stick to the path or the wolf will get you), ‘Little Red Cap/ Riding Hood’ is a story of victim blaming. Wolves are not vampires! They can cross the path without an invitation! Add in the sexual subtext and references to cannibalism contained in the earliest versions, in which the wolf bakes Granny into pies and tricks Red into eating them – fairy tale meta is the creepiest – and you have a seriously screwed up little fable on your hands. There’s a reason the Grimm brothers sanitised this stuff, but in this version at least, Red learns from her first mistake. Sticking to the path won’t save you. Sharp scissors and some very heavy stones probably will.

Review No.211 – The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Vintage Books, 2006

Originally published 1979

A naïve debutante is drawn into the darkly glamorous world of a debauched nobleman. One father seeks to restore his family’s fortunes with the aid of a most unlikely ally, while another gambles his child’s life away. Wolves prowl the winter woods, caged birds cry warnings, and blood pools in the snow.

This collection of short stories is something of a classic among fairy tale retellings. Angela Carter’s writing style is beautifully intricate and lyrical, but there’s an unexpectedly judgemental attitude towards several of the heroines and a brutal cynicism in these stories that overrides the cohesion of actual plot. While I can objectively appreciate Carter’s skill, I can’t say I truly enjoyed any story from The Bloody Chamber.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.96 – The Legend of Black Mountain

This Australian Aboriginal story, taken from Jean A. Ellis’ collection This is the Dreaming, is strictly speaking more legend than fairy tale (as you might be able to tell from the title) but contains all the familiar ingredients: towers, terrible ideas, and forbidding landscape features. It begins with two brothers, Tajalruji and Kalruji, who are the best hunters of their people and BFFs besides. All that comes to an abrupt end one day while they are out hunting and come across an exceptionally pretty girl digging up yams. Both brothers are betrothed to other women but each immediately decides he wants this girl instead. Neither approaches her with his plan; no, they tell each other straight away. Cue mutual outrage.

They argue for a long time, but you can’t talk someone out of love at first sight. What are they to do, then? The obvious solution is to ASK THE GIRL WHAT SHE WANTS, but that does not even occur to them. A physical fight is out of the question, as it would contravene the laws of their people, so the brothers settle on a contest of skill. Using the black boulders that scatter the plain around them, they will each build a tower. Whichever brother builds the higher tower will win a chance with the girl.

All this debate has not been subtle. Overhearing their decision, the girl stays to watch them commence their work. All day the brothers labour on their towers, keeping pace so well with one another that neither dares sleep. As word of their contest spreads an audience gathers and people start picking sides, but the girl herself offers no opinion, only watches in amazement as the towers climb ever higher.

For three days Tajalruji and Kalruji create their improbable architecture with the stamina of born performance artists. By the morning of the fourth day clouds are massing on the horizon and a powerful wind has begun to blow, but the brothers won’t stop and no one wants to leave.

Then the storm hits. Thunder deafens the crowd; an abrupt torrent of rain descends. The towers are the nearest shelter, so that’s where the spectators go to escape the downpour, but they soon see there is no protection to be found in this place. Tajalruji and Kalruji are snatched up by the storm; the girl they were so desperate to impress is thrown against a boulder and carried away into the clouds. At last the towers can withstand the onslaught no longer and collapse, crushing the people hiding beneath them.

No one survives the storm.

By the time the clouds clear, all that’s left of the towers is a vast tangle of black boulders: a newly-made mountain that is also a tomb. The brothers and the girl are never seen again.

That is what you might call a downer of an ending. Legends are like that. Black Mountain is actually a real place in northern Queensland, though I have never been there and after reading this story, don’t especially want to. It’s interesting to note, though, that while most legends and fairy tales reward the hyperbolic displays of their heroes, in this story it’s what leads to their eventual destruction. The girl, of course, couldn’t win no matter what. Imagine how awful it would have been for her if one of the brothers had succeeded – the peer pressure of the crowd would have forced her into marriage with a total stranger based solely on his ability to construct a tower with his bare hands.

Towers never end well.

Review No.210 – The Blood Countess

The Blood Countess (Pandora English No.1) – Tara Moss

Pan Macmillan Australia, 2010

Shaking the dust of her one horse hometown off her shoes, Pandora English arrives in New York hoping to bond with the great-aunt she has never met and at the same time begin a career in fashion writing – the only problem being that she can’t afford the clothes that will get her an interview. On her great-aunt’s advice she applies to a start-up magazine that shares her name, where there is a startlingly fortuitous job opening and a story begging to be told. What’s the secret ingredient in the new beauty cream taking America by storm? And who is really making a killing from it?

This is Victorian-born author Tara Moss’s first book in the Pandora English urban fantasy/paranormal romance series. While the premise is good, the execution is regrettably clumsy and clichéd. Too much about Pandora is told rather than shown, and she seems surprisingly clueless about the fashion industry for someone planning a career there. This is also very much a first person book – all the other characters seem to revolve entirely around Pandora rather than developing their own personalities. Hopefully that’s addressed in book two, The Spider Goddess.

Review No.209 – Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Dreams of Gods and Monsters (Daughter of Smoke and Bone No.3) – Laini Taylor

Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

While the skies of Earth turn fiery with the wings of angels, the skies of Eretz bruise and bleed. As an army from another world come to fulfil millennia of prophecies, another army is forged from despair and desperation – the most unlikely alliance of all, between the last of the chimaera and the seraph emperor’s banished bastards. For Karou and Akiva, their dream has become a reality they could never have imagined. But beyond the battles that will define both worlds forever, something older and more terrible is stirring.

Laini Taylor has a gift for exquisitely original, glowing prose and memorable phrases. I felt that she took on more than she could handle in one book, introducing new characters who were key to the plot but not investing enough time in their development. Some parts of the ending, therefore, felt a bit rushed and messy to me. There is so much to love, though. The Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy has been a fantastic fusion of urban and epic fantasy and it comes to a powerful conclusion in Dreams of Gods and Monsters. I look forward to seeing what Taylor writes next.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.95 – Prunella

This Italian fairy tale is taken from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. It begins when a little girl reaches into the abundant branches of a wayside plum tree and is snatched up by a witch in need of free domestic service. Her house is built entirely of plum stones and plums are the only food the girl ever gets to eat; the witch even renames her ‘Prunella’, which means ‘little plum’. Though the girl tries repeatedly to escape her new mistress, the magic laid over the witch’s house always brings her back. So Prunella remains, and somehow despite her enforced servitude and extreme diet, she grows into a healthy, beautiful young woman.

Not that she’s aware of the beautiful part – the witch has no mirrors in the house – until one day she glimpses her reflection in the still water of their well and lingers so long admiring it that the witch comes to find out what she’s doing. They look at their reflections side by side and it’s plain that while this lifestyle suits Prunella, it’s done nothing for the witch. Prunella is tactless enough to say so outright. She’ll regret that.

The witch’s first effort at retribution is to assign her servant a traditionally impossible task: she gives Prunella a basket to fill with water, and if she fails, her life will be forfeit. Prunella takes an equally traditional approach, falling into a heap beside the well and crying her heart out. At this point, a handsome young man conveniently materialises at her elbow. His name is Benvenuto, he’s the witch’s son, and he is in love with Prunella. In exchange for a kiss, he’ll fill the basket. Blackmail much?

Prunella turns him down flat, because she hates his mother. He respects that and fills the basket anyway. The witch is infuriated when Prunella comes back with the task completed, immediately realising who must have helped her. She storms out of the house, but leaves Prunella another task to be getting on with – she must turn a sack of raw wheat into loaves of bread in the space of an hour, or die.

And Prunella tries, though she’s well aware it can’t be done. With only five minutes left before the witch’s return, she’s not even finished grinding the flour, and surrenders again to tears. Benvenuto reappears like this is a pre-arranged signal. He makes the same offer, she rejects him again, and he works his magic on the wheat just the same. The witch walks through the door to find a pile of crusty loaves on the table.

Of course she knows it’s her son’s doing and his clear line of alliance doesn’t improve her mood AT ALL, but she decides to have a go at subtlety. She rouses Prunella at dawn with an unconvincing apology and a new task. “My sister lives on the other side of that mountain. She has a casket of jewels belonging to me, and I want you to go and fetch it. There is a pretty little string of pearls in it, I seem to remember. I fancy they would look well round your white neck.” On the one hand, she’s making super suspicious offers – on the other, Prunella gets to leave the house. She’s accustomed to living by the witch’s whims anyway, so she sets off happily enough.

Benvenuto intercepts her at the foot of the mountain with the bad news: his aunt is a witch too, and a particularly nasty piece of work besides. She’ll kill Prunella as soon as look at her. “But give me just one kiss, and I will save you!” Benvenuto declares. Prunella tosses her hair scornfully. “If I am going to my death, then I go to my death. I will not kiss the son of a witch.” You have to admire her consistency. Benvenuto, who does, helps her out for a third time with four seemingly unremarkable gifts to ease her way.

Continuing up the mountainside, Prunella comes to the witch’s gate and pours the first gift, oil, on its rusty hinges. This allows her to sneak inside unheard – well, unheard by everyone except the enormous guard dog, who comes racing over to rip out her throat. Prunella tosses him a loaf of bread and he falls on that instead. Crossing the courtyard, she sees a woman at the well trying to draw up a bucket with her long hair. Prunella offers her Benvenuto’s third gift, a rope. Inside the house, another woman is trying to clean the hearth with her tongue and gets a broom. Prunella snatches the promised casket off its shelf and runs out the door.

In her haste, the door slams, and the witch wakens. She screams at each of her servants in turn to kill the thief, but they all react to the witch’s cruelty by letting Prunella pass. She returns to her own mistress with the casket, and the first witch throws a violent tantrum. Yet another task is devised: Prunella must guess which of the witch’s three roosters is crowing throughout the night or be killed for her failure.

As before, Benvenuto turns up at the last minute with his kiss-or-be-killed special offer. When the first rooster crows at midnight, he tells Prunella it is the yellow bird. The second crow comes from the black bird. When the third rooster crows, however, Benvenuto falls silent and Prunella has no answer for the witch. Instead of letting herself to be murdered by her raging mistress, she jumps from her window.

Benvenuto catches her. “I love you, Prunella,” he tells her. “I do not ask anything of you, except to be allowed to save you.” She falls unconscious, and when she wakes she’s on the other side of the sea, where the witch will never find her. Benvenuto bids her a quiet goodbye and turns to go, but Prunella calls him back. “Have you forgotten that I am the son of a witch?” he asks. “Yes,” she answers, “I remember only that you are good and kind.” So they make a new life for themselves together, far away from the house of plum stones and the wrathful witch.

The moral of the story: you just can’t trust fruit in a fairy tale. I’ve always had a soft spot for Prunella, who might be brutally blunt but survives her servitude with healthy self-respect and a strong sense of boundaries. She only consents to marry Benvenuto when her circumstances don’t depend on it; when, in short, it’s a real choice. He’s a rather sad character, clearly estranged from his maniacal mother, feeling he has to blackmail a girl into caring about him but helping her no matter what. As for the witch sisters – seriously, they are so not prepared for the inevitable minion’s union.

An Update of Bayonets and Beanstalks

The temperature has dropped below 20C°, WINTER IS OFFICIAL. I’m wearing long sleeves and everything! If you don’t understand why this is exciting, you either don’t live in Queensland or spend too much time in air conditioning.

This is birthday weather and as an early celebration my fabulous sister took me to see The Magic Hour, a one-woman fairy tale-themed play by Vanessa Bates. You can probably guess why this is my thing? These were dark, intrinsically urban retellings, all seen from the perspective of a usually peripheral character and acted spectacularly by Ursula Yovich. I mean, she made a giant beanstalk something desperately sad. Fairy tales are chameleonic, they can be retold in so many ways and retain their essential core, but these versions were brilliantly done. My not-quite-birthday also included lion statues, art deco chandeliers and the Brisbane version of Honeydukes, all of which are excellent commemorations.

surprise cupcakeAnother date of significance coming up: as of this Friday I will have been blogging for two years, which may not sound very impressive, but means a lot to me! Have a visual cupcake.

In writerly news! Ticonderoga’s Kisses by Clockwork launched on the 8th and can now be pre-ordered from Book Depository and Amazon, or you could go in the running for a copy through this Goodreads giveaway. This anthology is home to my steampunk romance ‘Descension’, featuring a collapsing empire and a very unimpressed woman with a bayonet. Another of my short stories, ‘Signature’ – in which there are bad decisions and a bookshop – can be found in Twelfth Planet Press’s Kaleidoscope, which is slated for release in early August. More news on that soon!

Review No.208 – Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

HarperVoyager, 2008

Originally published in 1953

Once, it’s said, the firemen came to put out the fires. Now they respond to alarms of a different nature, arriving at the homes of transgressors to seek out forbidden books and burn them all. Montag loves the simplicity of the fire. When a chance encounter makes him question his work, however, the answers are not simple at all. Why must the books burn? And why are so many people willing to burn with them?

I’m easily jarred out of a story with dated details, and that happened a few times with Fahrenheit 451, but the real problems were more structural – the world-building did not make sense, the characters were inconsistent and many of the things they did were incomprehensible. It felt more like a moral fable than a science fiction novel, which was possibly intentional but did not appeal to me. Though frustratingly hyperbolic, Fahrenheit 451 did at least make me think. I might have taken its message more seriously if Bradbury had referenced even one female author among the forbidden ‘greats’.

Review No.207 – Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield

Emily Bestler Books/ Atria, 2013

A boy aims his catapult in an impossible throw, and succeeds. He kills a rook that day. Before long the incident is forgotten, because for William Bellman overstepping the bounds of what is possible becomes the norm; growing into a man of remarkable drive and ambition, it seems his path in life is set to be a glorious one. Rooks, however, forget nothing at all.

I’m not really sure what this book was meant to be about, but I don’t trust rooks any more. There are several key elements of the plot Setterfield does not resolve, and while the story never lacks momentum it’s never clear, even right at the end, where she’s intending to go. Somehow she pulls it off, with her elegant, enigmatic style creating a beautifully ominous atmosphere. Don’t read the blurb on the book if you don’t want to be spoiled for half the plot – Bellman & Black requires a careful build-up to have its full impact.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.94 – Ajaz the Wise

It’s a scientific fact of fairy tales that chancellors and viziers cannot be trusted. In this story from the Hamlyn collection Legends from Eastern Lands, the khan realises he has a whole throng of professional ‘wise men’ in his employ and decides to test their worth with a fun scavenger hunt. They are to search his khanate for ‘the most wretchedly poor of all living men, the most worthless bird and the most useless plant in the world’. To their collective credit, the viziers take their task very seriously, but their criteria lacks perspective. They choose a thistle as the most useless plant on the principle it can’t be eaten and snags on their clothes. For the most worthless bird, they pick the hen pheasant. “There is not one brightly coloured feather on its body and it squats on the ground with an extraordinary lack of grace,” they all agree, rich-person goggles firmly in place.

As for the most wretchedly poor of all men, they find a promising candidate on a barren mountain: a raggedy, elderly shepherd known only as ‘Needy’. He’s happy enough to accompany the viziers back to the palace, but on his advice they replace the thistles with blackroot and the hen pheasant with a magpie.

The khan is willing to accept Needy as appropriately wretched and sends him to the kitchens for a much-needed meal, but turns smug over the other two choices. “It has been known from time immemorial that the most useless plant in the world is the thistle,” he tells them, “and the most worthless bird the hen pheasant.” When he learns that his viziers were acting on the shepherd’s advice, he calls Needy back and asks for an explanation. Thistles, it turns out, make good fuel when you’re desperate, and hen pheasants can be eaten. From a poor man’s perspective, that makes them worth a great deal.

The khan is impressed, but being a khan, can’t just say thanks and move on. He sets Needy a test: to identify what differentiates one horse from all the others in the royal stables. Needy notices its behaviour is more akin to that of a cow and sure enough, it was reared by one. Next the khan holds out a jewel and wants Needy to tell him its secret. By testing its weight, Needy guesses two worms are gnawing their way through it. The khan’s last question is more personal: how old is the royal house to which he belongs? Needy looks him straight in the eye and tells him he was born a commoner.

That does not go down well. Furious, the khan sends for his mother to refute the claim. She can’t. Though she bore nine daughters with her royal husband, he wanted a male heir so much he threatened to kill her unless she gave him a son. As insurance, she found a pregnant commoner, hired soothsayers to predict whether the child would be a son, and offered to swap the children. With a hefty sum of gold as a sweetener, the woman agreed and by the time the old khan returned from his hunting trip his wife was in safe possession of a baby boy.

“In this case,” the khan exclaims to Needy, traumatised, “I am less fit to sit on this throne than you, who are truly wise.” Needy backs off quickly from the throne. He explains he guessed the khan’s roots when he offered Needy a meal of soup, as opposed to more regal options like roast lamb or patridge. That is the most ridiculous DNA test I’ve ever heard of, but the khan’s terribly impressed and makes Needy his favourite vizier.

The other viziers don’t like this new arrangement at all and revert to their natural scheming state. Seizing every opportunity to slander the shepherd to their master, they eventually achieve the desired result and get Needy banished. He moves quietly into the neighbouring khanate and gets on fine, but the khan worries over his decision and nothing the other viziers can do will rouse him from his slump. During a hunting trip, he stops a different shepherd and asks him a series of bizarre questions. At length he poses the oddest question of all: if he has forty geese whose feathers he wishes to pluck unnoticed, whose flesh he wants cooked without a fire and whose throats he wants slit without spilling a drop of blood, is there someone who can accomplish it? The shepherd says yes. Turning on the baffled viziers, the khan tells them they must guess the meaning of the conversation or die.

Underhandedness having failed them, the viziers ride to find Needy and beg him for advice. His plan is for them to slaughter all but one of their horses, burn their clothes and let him ride the last horse while they run naked back to the khan. That sounds like mildly sadistic revenge as opposed to an actual plan, but the viziers are desperate and agree.

Hearing of the spectacle, the khan comes to watch and is so happy to have Needy back that he forgets all about the viziers. That doesn’t wipe out their humiliation and resentment. Overhearing their dour mutters, Needy calls them together to explain the weird conversation with Shepherd Mark 2 – it was all in metaphors! As for the bit about the geese, the khan was referring to the viziers themselves. He wanted to reform them without actually killing them (although either outcome was clearly okay by him). By robbing them of all the trappings of power, Needy fulfilled the threats implicit in the riddle, but allowed the viziers to live.

The khan chimes in at this point to tell the viziers to get lost, and to announce he’s giving over his throne to Needy. The ensuing celebrations last for a month, then Needy gets on with governing. Somehow he convinces five khanates to join up under his rule and his justice system inspires mass immigration. He’s so beloved that his people rename him Ajaz the Wise, because Khan Needy sounds kind of…wrong. He never forgets his roots, though, hanging his old shepherd’s clothes at the palace gate as a reminder of his true self.

Ritual humiliation is a favoured punishment in fairy tales, almost as popular as beheadings and dismemberment. I don’t think I was meant to side with the viziers, but honestly – they do exactly what the khan asked and he promotes a total stranger over their heads? How did he think they would feel? Given how far the khan is prepared to go to restore his bromance, it’s probably a good thing he abdicated. Perhaps he can become a shepherd too.