This week I’ve been thinking about fairy tales because I just had a collection of short stories and poems come out, all of which are based on fairy tales. And now I’m thinking of them particularly because I’m trying to put together a reading group guide with questions and activities.
What would I want a reading group to think about and do, in response to my book? I don’t really know, since I’ve never written one of these before . . . But I’ve been thinking about what I might want someone to ask me in relation to fairy tales. Like the following:
Why fairy tales? Why did you get interested in them in the first place, and why write about them now? I mean, you’re an adult now. Does an adult really need fairy tales?
I started reading fairy tales as a child because I was given them — that was what children were given, when I was growing up in Europe. All my fairy tales books are in Hungarian, so perhaps it was simply a European thing? The books I was given when I was older, in the United States, were generally more realistic, but I still gravitated to fantasy, like the stories of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. I loved magical stories because they showed me that magic was possible, and my world was often a dull place — I would have loved to step through a wardrobe, even into a land dominated by winter and the White Witch.
But fairy tales had, and still have, something else as well. There is a darkness at their heart that fits with what children know about the world. Children experience the world as large and irrational. (Why do they have to go to bed at a particular time? Because a parent said so.) It’s filled with forces they don’t understand (even gravity, which they have to learn about over and over through direct experience). Some people will help you, but some people will harm you, and it’s difficult to tell which is which. Food is strange — why is there broccoli and why do you have to eat it? There are witches and trolls for sure.
As we grow older, the power of fairy tales does not diminish, because they also reflect the adolescent experience. To an adolescent girl, all men are wolves, bears, foxes. They are the animal other, hairy and unpredictable, who may end up being good husbands, or may keep the corpses of dead wives in their castles (metaphorically, although fairy tales are also about the reality of violence). And then, if it’s time for marriage, fairy tales tell us a fundamental truth: that all marriages are to animal brides and bridegrooms. We always marry an animal because we are all animals, all “other” to each other. You are as strange and unknowable to your spouse as a swan bride, a bear groom.
Fairy tales tell us fundamental truths about the world, truths I often think we don’t get from other places — from economics or political science or religion. They tell us that hunger hurts, that we need to share, that sometimes we need to be clever because the trolls are ready to trick us. But also that being too clever, to the point where we lose our hearts, is never good.
What is your favorite fairy tale and why?
You see, I can ask this question in a reading group guide, but I can’t answer it myself. There are too many I love, both old folktales and literary fairy tales. But if I really had to answer, I would say Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” A beautiful princess who also happens to be a powerful sorceress, disguised as a white cat, falls in love with a youngest son and gives him a dog so small it fits in a walnut shell, a veil so fine it slips through the eye of a needle, and finally the most charming woman in the world — herself. I would not mind being a cat princess-sorceress, living in a castle filled with cats. In the collection, the story “Blanchefleur” is based on “The White Cat.”
If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you pick? How would you rewrite it, and why?
Of course, I’ve already written so many. But right now I’m working on a story that combines the narrative structures of “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin.” It’s a completely realistic story, other than being set in an imaginary country — there’s no magic in it, but it has the feel of a fairy tale. I’ve just started, and so far it’s going well, but I’m not entirely sure how long it’s going to end up being, or what I will do with it once it’s done. I’m writing it because “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin” are essentially mirror images of the same story. I wanted to see what putting them together would be like . . .
And you, reader? If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you rewrite and why? Is it your favorite fairy tale, or one that bothers you somehow, that you want to retell even if you’re not sure why?
As for activities, I think I would tell this hypothetical reading group to research a fairy tale, to find out its history and read various versions. Then to come together and tell the tale to each other, the way women did long ago while shelling peas or spinning. In the end, the best way to interact with a fairy tale is to ingest it, like a slice of bread — to learn it and tell it and make it your own.
I’m so delighted to have this book out into the world . . . I’m especially proud of it, and I hope it finds a readership. If you, reader, like fairy tales — well, I wrote it for you.
This is the cover of the book, with wonderful art by Ruth Sanderson. I was also very lucky that the amazing Jane Yolen agreed to write the introduction. And yes, I did model for the image in the apple! That is based on me . . . If you’re interested in ordering it, here’s the Mythic Delirium order page.