Review: “The Fairies Return Or, New Tales for Old,” Compiled by Peter Davies

First of all, I must ask the forgiveness of all my readers.  I have a confession to make.  I’ve been a little selfish with this book, and that’s why the review has been a bit of a long time coming.  Allow me to explain.

I received a review copy of “The Fairies Return” last month.  The book, which is (in its current edition) published by Princeton University Press, is a collection of retold fairy tales.  What sets it apart from most retellings, however, is that these stories were written and collected in 1934 in England.  Although we tend to think of fairy tale retellings as a recent phenomenon, this is a false assumption.  For as long as the oral tradition of fairy tales has existed, the stories have been changing and growing.  It only makes sense that present day writers aren’t the first to twist these stories around and view them through new, often modernized lenses.  However, it’s still rare to come upon a collection of older retellings like this one.

The uniqueness of the collection will make you want to savor it, just as I did.  With slow satisfaction, you will find yourself reading and reflecting upon each tale. This book must be devoured as might a particularly delicious meal, with the care and pace each succulent story deserves.  You will feel drawn to inspect each story closely, not only because of the tales’ fanciful nature, but also because of their fascinating historical placement and significance.  Although I regret that my slow savoring has delayed your knowledge of this wonderful little find, I am certain that any readers of this text will surely understand.

Each story–even a retelling of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”–comes across as unquestionably British.  The various writers are talented in their abilities to transform these familiar tales into stories of a very different sort.  However, even when the topics are closer to parliament and the stock market than magic, the skeletons of the original fairy tales are easily recognizable.

Although the stories themselves are diverse and offer many different tones and topics for closer inspection, perhaps the most interesting part of the collection is its ability to give readers a look at what fairy tale enthusiasts were up to almost 100 years ago.   The references and settings offer clear signs of the times in which the tales were retold, making this book a fascinating piece of history as well as a must-have for any fan of fairy tale retellings.

If your interest is piqued, then you’re in luck.  There’s a giveaway going until Oct. 26, in which entrants are eligible to win a free copy of “The Fairies Return.”  Five winners will be selected to receive this one-of-a-kind book.

For more information on “The Fairies Return,” check out this description from Princeton University Press.

Aside

Once Upon a Webcomic: Jim Benton

This post marks a return to my recurring feature, Once Upon a Webcomic.   Although Jim Benton‘s work is not technically produced as a webcomic, it is a comic I discovered online.  Because of this, I’m lumping them in together.

This comic from jimbenton.com starts off with a fairy tale scene we all recognize, but quickly takes a different turn.

As in my previous posts in this series, this comic uses our cultural knowledge of fairy tale norms to make a joke that people of all ages will understand.  Today, we remember the Frog Prince being cured by a princess’ kiss, so it’s alarming (and potentially amusing) to see the princess refuse in this way.

Interestingly, however, this violent reaction isn’t far off from the princess’ response in the  earliest versions of “The Frog Prince.”  The original princess, who was disgusted by the frog, threw him against a wall; this ended the spell and returned him to his human form.  In various similar tales involving princes enchanted into frog shapes, the women must actually behead the frogs to trigger their transformation.

What’s most interesting here, however, is that Jim Benton was probably not making an attempt to return the tale to its roots.  In all likelihood, he was trying to get a laugh from his princess’ unexpected response.  Instead, he brought the tale almost full circle.

Cinderella’s Eigenvectors: An XKCD Fairy Tale

One of my favorite webcomics is XKCD, which I religiously read on its post days (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday).  Imagine my delight, this morning, when I got online to read my emails and daily webcomics and saw the comic strip below.

Goldilocks' discovery of Newton's method for approximation required surprisingly few changes.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that XKCD has combined fairy tales and math; the webcomic proclaims itself to be about romance, sarcasm, math, and language.  It was only a matter of time before fairy tales, as an integral part of our pop culture language, found their way into the mix.  Even if you don’t know enough about the mathematical and scientific concepts referenced in this comic to fully understand the jokes, everyone can recognize the fairy tales and dredge up some childhood memories of occasionally distracted parents.  Once again, fairy tales help to create a joke in which all members of our culture can participate.

The Muffin Tree

Here’s an example of someone using the patterns they learned from fairy tales to create something new: “The Muffin Tree.”  This silly video, which was created by independent animator Amy Winfrey, aligns itself with fairy tales right away when it opens with the iconic fairy tale phrase “once upon a time.”

The story then draws on further fairy tale norms; the main character discovers something magical, but does not respond in the way she should.  She is greedy and takes advantage of the tree, eating too many muffins and becoming fat.  Then, she makes matters worse by being ungrateful and complaining that the tree does not meet her needs.  The girl, however, should have remembered to be careful what she wished for; her wish was granted with a new kind of muffin that was delicious but poisonous.

This story, which is a morality tale, models itself after a common type of fairy tale.  Although not all fairy tales have morals, many of them do.  For instance, “Little Red Riding Hood” encourages children to listen to their parents and “Snow White” discourages vanity by associating it with the villainous Queen.  Fairy tale characters who are lazy, ungrateful, or otherwise wicked often end up as dead as the little girl in “The Muffin Tree.”

“The Muffin Tree” is especially similar to a Swahili story called “The Story of a Gazelle,” which can be found in Andrew Lang’s “Violet Fairy Book.” In this story, a foolish man is rescued from poverty by a magical gazelle.  The gazelle makes him rich and gives him everything he desires.  Once he gains wealth, respect, and power, however, he becomes ungrateful and neglects the gazelle.  The creature becomes ill, but the foolish man pays him no heed.  Soon, the magical gazelle dies and, with him, takes all the gifts he gave to the foolish man, leaving his former master impoverished and homeless once more.

Even though new fairy tales cannot truly be created, stories like “The Muffin Tree” show us that fairy tale patterns can still be used effectively.

Ferret Fairy Tales

As a well-known branch of pop culture, fairy tales can pop up in all kinds of weird places.  Since we all know a ton of the classic fairy tales, they can easily be used to make jokes that people of all ages will understand; I mentioned this before, in my post on the hipster Little Mermaid.  This can be seen in Ferret Frenzy’s 2o11 calendar, “Ferret Tales.”

Ferret CinderellaI discovered this bizarre calendar in the mall, a few months ago.  The whole concept seemed so singularly weird that my friend had to buy it and has been keeping me updated on the “ferret tale” that graces her wall each month.  The calendar, which is comprised of ferrets photoshopped into easily recognizable fairy tale settings, includes ferret versions of many of our favorite fairy tale characters.  Snow White, Goldilocks, and even Little Red Riding Hood have ferret doppelgangers.

Unusual as this calendar may seem, there’s something about it that is truly hilarious.  I know I’ve often said that the dead fairy tale medium manages to keep growing in all sorts of ways, but this may actually be the weirdest of them all.

Disney Princesses No More?

The L. A. Times reported in Nov. 2010 that Disney will no longer be producing their famous retold fairy tale films, as many of today’s children find them uncool, and the films have little appeal for boys.  Although this statement was later retracted, Disney’s potential discontinuance of their fairy tale movies could have a large impact on fairy tales themselves.  There would be potential for results both negative and positive.  I’ve broken these into pros and cons for easy reading.

Pros: Although it is perfectly natural for fairy tales to evolve over time, many of the fairy tales Disney has tackled over the years may have been changed a little too much, and many of the most interesting details have been lost.  All of the gore has been edited out of these stories for today’s children.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think if Ariel survives and marries the prince, then she isn’t actually “the Little Mermaid,” and a version of “Rapunzel” where no one gets blinded hardly seems likes Rapunzel at all.  Generations of children have missed out on hearing these stories in their entirety, and the end of Disney fairy tales might mean a return to the originals, either through reading or through another film company willing to more honestly tackle the classics.  Not only that, but the Disneyfication of stories like “Alice in Wonderland,” and “Peter Pan” has led to many people falsely classifying them as fairy tales when, in fact, they are not.  Perhaps, if these beloved stories were less closely associated with actual fairy tales like “Snow White” and “Cinderella,” this confusion could be avoided.

Cons: Disney princess films have done a lot to further the fairy tale genre in our modern society.  Certainly, these tales are a part of shared cultural knowledge leading to constant remakes, but how much of that can be attributed to our exposure to them in their Disney versions?  These movies have been part of childhoods across the globe since the 1937 release of Disney’s “Snow White.”  Certainly, many of these stories had lasted for hundreds of years before Walt Disney ever got his hands on them, but these movies certainly impacted the genre and did their part to extend its already lengthy shelf-life.  I hope that these stories are ingrained enough in our society to be passed down to children long after Disney stops producing fairy tale movies, but it’s possible that Disney has done more to further them than we might imagine.

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