Mind Meld: Exploring Fairy Tales with The Starlit Wood Storytellers

mindmeldWe asked the editors and authors of the recently released anthology The Starlit Wood from Saga Press to chat about fairy tales and their influence on modern-day storytelling.

Editors Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien tackled the following question:

There can often be a societal expectation that adults will outgrow fairy tales. How do you hope collections such as The Starlit Wood will challenge such expectations and invite adults to explore fairy tales once again?

Navah Wolfe

Navah Wolfe is an editor at Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s science fiction and fantasy imprint. She was previously an editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, where she worked on many bestselling and award-winning books. Navah is also the co-editor, along with Dominik Parisien, of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, two tiny humans, and one editorial cat. Find her on Twitter @navahw.

There’s often a perception that fairy tales are child’s play, that they’re children’s stories—but one of my favorite things about fairy tales is how universally experiential they are. Sometimes people love to point out how gruesome fairy tales can be, how clearly adult in nature they are—and they are!—but I would argue that they’re meant to speak to children and adults. Children experience the frightening and unsettling just as adults do, and the unknown can be even scarier when you don’t have the tools to narrate what you’re experiencing. Fairy tales are stories that help us identify our fears, that give us a language to speak to the unexpected in the world around us, both extraordinary and mundane—no matter the age of the reader. They’re the narrative tools that we’re given as children that we can hold on to and make use of for our entire lives.

One of our goals with The Starlit Wood was to use fairy tales to explore all the nooks and crannies of genre, to show how these old familiar standards can look startlingly new and different when you give new skin to old bones. One of my favorite things about reading science fiction and fantasy in general is how reading adventures and experiences taking place in another world, on another planet, in a distant future, can sometimes help cut through the noise and give us a clearer lens to make sense of things happening in our own lives, our own worlds. Fairy tales are similarly useful tools. Fairy tales are safe, they’re familiar, beloved—and that makes them perfect vehicles to sneak in the unexpected, the fascinating, the unnerving. We let our guard down around fairy tales, because we think we know them, and that’s why a really good retelling can be so utterly satisfying when it surprises us.

Dominik Parisien

Dominik Parisien is an editor, poet, and writer. He is the co–editor, with Navah Wolfe, of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales. He is also the editor of Clockwork Canada (Exile Editions). Dominik has worked on various anthologies, including The Time Traveler’s Almanac (Tor), Sisters of the Revolution (PM Press), and The Bestiary (Centipede Press). Recently, his stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies The Playground of Lost Toys and Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creatures, Myths, and Monsters. You can find him online on Twitter at @domparisien.

Although fairy tales remain a popular genre for children, I think they certainly no longer have that specific association. Fairy tales as a children’s form was very much a Victorian perception, but writers like Tanith Lee and Angela Carter revitalized interest in fairy tales as method of adult storytelling. Later, Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow’s influential retelling anthologies (the Snow White, Blood Red anthology series) and Windling’s work as a novel editor and the fairy tales series she published further cemented fairy tales as adult storytelling. I would say that for many genre readers and writers today fairy tale retellings are as valid a narrative form as any. You need only look at some of the top markets out there: Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to name only a few, and all of them publish fairy tale retellings.

Nowadays, even places like The New Yorker publish fairy tale retellings by authors like Robert Coover, and something like Helen Oyeyemi’s Snow White retelling, Boy, Snow, Bird, can make it on Heather’s Picks (the founder and president of the Indigo Books chain in Canada).

This proliferation of fairy tale retellings goes well beyond fiction writing as well. Fairy tales are regularly retold or drawn upon in multiple mediums, be they movies, graphic novels, art, even video games. Some of those things are classified as children’s stories, such as Frozen for example, but others, like the Fables graphic novels, or the art of Leonora Carrington, or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, are meant for adults.

For me, The Starlit Wood is part of that tradition of engaging with classic stories. I like to think that what we’ve done is another part of this already-impressive tradition, building on the incredible works that came before it, and branching out to explore fairy tales across genres.

We offered the authors a variety of topics to pick from and grouped them together below.

When studying fairy tales of old we consider the context: who was telling them, to whom, and why. Do you consider such context before writing your own fairy tales? If so, how?

Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan (@margolanagan) has published 2 fantasy novels (Tender Morsels and The Brides of Rollrock Island/Sea Hearts) and numerous fantasy and science fiction short stories, most of which appear in her 5 collections. She has won 4 World Fantasy Awards and been shortlisted in the Hugo, Nebula, Stoker, Sturgeon, Tiptree, Seiun and British Fantasy Awards.

In Tender Morsels, which is a remaking of the Grimms’ “Snow White and Rose Red”, I was particularly cranky with the way Wilhelm Grimm had made over an older version of the story, “The Ungrateful Dwarf” by Caroline Stahl. As Jack Zipes says, “It is a good example of how both Stahl and Wilhelm Grimm sought to ‘domesticate’ and adapt the fairy tale for children.” I see myself as reversing this project, as stripping out the explicit moral from the fairy tale, attaching a GoPro to what remains and releasing it back into the wild.

As well as the Grimms’ and others’ bland-ifying and moralizing, many traditional folk and fairy tales have been repurposed and peddled by Disney and other animators, often with the sex, death and fear replaced by song and dance, light comedy and saccharine, simplistic, and oh-so-often sexist or racist messages. These manifestations are perhaps even more in need of disrupting, as their reach is so great and their connection with the energy of the original so tenuous. I’m here to restore to these anodyne tales all things ugly, lumpen, clumsy, and existentially terrifying.

I’m trying to do the impossible, to replicate the storytelling of a time before anything got written down. I want to sit my readers at a fire long extinguished, under the spell of a centuries-dead tale-teller, and let her work her magic on them. I want her, with her recounting of impossible events, her descriptions of characters she simply can’t have met (can she, really?), to bend the listeners’ known world out of shape, to terrify and astound them.

A fairy tale should creak and grind with old, good bones; it should laugh in the face of anyone who would sanitise it and dilute its power; it should do its work mysteriously, seeming like nonsense yet falling into place word by weird word. It might strike notes that are peculiar only to the reader’s time, but its core should hold true for all times, the smoky past, the knotty present, and whatever the future turns out to be.

Kat Howard

Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, is currently available from Saga Press, who will also be publishing a new novel from her in 2017, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, and has appeared in multiple magazines and anthologies. You can find her on twitter at @KatWithSword and at her website.

Well, at the end of the day, the “who is telling them” is me. I mean, even when I’ve made the choice to write in first person (in which case the “I” of the story is never me), I’m still the one who has chosen that particular narrator, and I come to the story with my own context—who I am as a person, as a writer, as a member of society at this particular place and time. For good or ill, all those things are in my stories.

As to the why, I definitely think about what I want to see in a story when I write. With fairy tales in particular, I’m often doing retellings—”The Snow Queen” for The Starlit Wood, for example. And so I think about pieces of fairy tales that had particular resonance for me, or that itched at the back or my story brain—I’m probably more likely to retell a story that had pieces in that made me angry, or where I have a disagreement with the original, because then my version is my way of saying that it could be different. But sometimes the “why this story” is that it gives me a framework to play with a cool idea – I had read an article that talked about the idea of crystallized time, and a Snow Queen retelling seemed like the perfect place to work with that.

The to whom part— very rarely have a specific audience in mind when I write, and I often try to push the idea of the audience fully out of my head. Not because I don’t want the work to be read, but because I need to be happy with the end product before I start thinking about possible audience response. But I will say that one of the things that I try to keep in mind when I write is to avoid the things that annoy me. So the trope, for example, of a king marrying off his daughter as the prize to the guy that performs the impossible task, is not something you’re likely to see me write. I do want to write for an audience that sees women as people, not as prizes.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones was born in West Texas in 1972. Jones is a Blackfeet Native American, the author of 15.5 novels, 6 short story collections and 220-plus stories. Jones has written in a variety of different genres including horror, crime and science fiction. Stephen Graham Jones is a professor at the University of Colorado.

If you’re going to study fairy tales, then, yeah, our best guess at the context of their telling, it matters—that’s what shaped the fairy tale into what it is now. And it’s what shaped it into what it became all over again a hundred years later, and then again the next century. We always get the fairy tales we need. But we don’t need to take into account the context of any fairy tale play we might get ourselves involved in, I don’t think. Just for the simple reason that we’re kind of automatically inextricably already in and of the context of this telling. We can’t help it.

Taking it too consciously into account, all that would do is burden us with agendas and attempts at correspondence and trying to write for the ages, all that unfun stuff, none of which really promotes or allows the kind of play that’s necessary for a fairy tale to work as a fairy tale should: as something that would seem to be innocuous, but’s actually coring right into this human condition. You don’t do that with your brain, with knowledge, and you don’t do that by arming yourself with facts. You do it with heart, and with a smile, and more than a little deviousness. And then you run away fast.

“Metamorphosis defines the fairy tale above all else.” Do you agree with such an assessment? Why or why not?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a a day job as a system engineer. Her Gothic novel The House of Shattered Wings, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, has won the British Science Fiction Association Award. 

Well, the fairytale I retold (Da Trang and the Pearl) is all about metamorphosis and madness and death, but I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment! I’m not a folklorist, but I feel like metamorphosis in its narrowest definition (someone transforms into something or someone else) fits a lot of fairy tales but not all of them, and in its wider definition of change (one character maturing or achieving new social status) basically covers all storytelling including fairy tales.

For me, what defines fairy tales is a…particular mood I guess? A certain indefinition around the edges, of the time period or place where it’s set, a certain stylised set of happenings and tropes (the social rise, the son caring for his widowed mother, a common staple of Vietnamese tales, for instance) and a certain set of endings (it’s not always the happily ever after ending—a lot of Vietnamese fairy tales end badly or with a moral lesson or both). Fairy tales can be sharply satirical as well, a lot of them being a more or less explicit way of commenting on a current political or social situation in a disguised way (the fairy tales told in the Salons in France in the 17th Century have very clear political connotations). I guess fairy tales are really difficult to define though, as for me it’s very much a case of “I know it when I see it”!

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky.

I think that part of what makes fairy tales so beguiling and endlessly fascinating is the fact that it’s almost impossible to pin down what defines them, as a genre. Certainly, there are lots of fairy tales where someone is transformed—but there are plenty where that doesn’t happen, too. Unless you’re going with the broadest sense of metamorphosis, meaning “someone changes over the course of the story”—in which case, you’ve just described all stories, of all genres and types. In fact, fairy tales are a lot like superhero stories—just like some superheroes have secret identities and costumes but others don’t, some fairy tales have evil bargains, or princes/princesses, or journeys, and others don’t.

The story I picked for The Starlit Wood is a classic Grimm tale in which there is no metamorphosis, and precious little overt magic—it’s just a world of talking animals and food items, where everybody takes this for granted and runs with it. In “The Mouse, The Bird and the Sausage,” the only transformation comes from the fact that the three characters trade jobs and abandon their traditional roles, with disastrous results. In fact, earlier today, I realized for the first time ever that this story belongs to a whole classification of stories: “Trading Places: Aarne-Thompson types 85 and 1408, in which family members exchange jobs with disastrous results.” So there’s a whole subgenre of fairy tales about the evils of swapping jobs—especially husbands thinking their wives have it too easy, until they learn the hard way how tough it is to be a housewife. (I think there have been some TV episodes along these lines, too.) So not only does my mouse/bird/sausage not fit into most of your usual ideas about fairy tales, but there’s a whole classification of those stories—and the reason we need such an elaborate classification system is because fairy tales are all over the map! So I guess I would say that the thing that defines fairy tales is just how prone the genre, itself, is to metamorphosis and blurred lines.

Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is the author of the novels The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque, The Girl in the Glass, and The Shadow Year; and the story collections Crackpot Palace and The Drowned Life (all Morrow/HarperCollins). His latest book is the collection A Natural History of Hell (Small Beer).

Metamorphosis? I don’t think so as there are famous fairy tales where that type of change doesn’t take place—Rupunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Three Billy Goats Gruff, etc. Every story has “change” as an integral part, as Aristotle called it—“catharsis.” But I don’t think that kind of change is necessarily metamorphosis. Stories of the interaction of Gods and humanity have a good deal more metamorphosis as Ovid illustrated. Myths aren’t fairy tales, though. At the same time, I can think of a number of fairy tales that have a surprising transformation from one form to another, like The Frog Prince and all those others where some ill-used person or beast turns out to actually be a person of high standing.

Theodora Goss

Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom (2012), a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia (2014). She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List. Her short story “Singing of Mount Abora” won the World Fantasy Award.

I think that’s partly true. For me, fairy tales are structured by the interplay between stasis and metamorphosis. For example, in Perrault’s “Cinderella” we like to focus on the moment when the fairy godmother appears and turns the pumpkin into a coach, the lizards into footmen. We forget that for most of the fairy tale, Cinderella is a servant in her own household, with no realistic prospect of improving her lot. We like to focus on the transformation, not the suffering. But Snow White lies dead in her coffin for a long time. The Goose-Girl has to patiently herd her geese until she is recognized as a princess. The heroine in “Six Swans” keeps sewing shirts for her brothers, even as she is about to be burned for witchcraft. Sleeping Beauty is perhaps the champion of fairy tale stasis…

Yes, fairy tales are about transformation: the frog turns into a prince. But metamorphosis exists in balance with periods of stasis, when the hero or heroine is asleep, dead, or disguised. And I think both states are important. The happy ending owes its existence to both the glass slippers and the long years Cinderella spent sleeping by the hearth—it is those long years that make the ending so worthwhile.

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory is the author of We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. His other books include Afterparty, Harrison Squared, and Spoonbenders, upcoming from Knopf in 2017.

Fairy tales are like jazz standards; every writer knows them, knows their structure, and what other writers have rung their changes. And like standards, the joy is finding new riffs that play off them.

They’re also deliciously weird, and not just because of the witches and trolls that inhabit them. They’re weird because they’re old, and you suspect that whatever lessons the original tellers thought they were passing on to children are not the ones modern audiences are taking from them now. Take the Hansel and Gretel story—today it seems clear that the parents, who are dumping their children in the woods, are the villains. The crimes of the witch pale in comparison—she was just doing what witches do.

That weirdness makes fairy tales ripe for messing with. A jazz guitarist I know once told me that the song “My Favorite Things,” which every kid can sing, is surprisingly tricky to improvise upon—and that’s why musicians kept taking cracks at it. Listen to Coltrane warp and bend and pick apart the song—he seems to find new things in every pass through the melody, and just when you think he’s spinning out of control, he finds the spine of the song again.

My story in the anthology takes the Hansel and Gretel story and makes it into a near-future SF stoner comedy. Why? Two reasons: the story is sturdy enough to take it. And it was fun to do.

Find previous Mind Meld columns here.

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