enchanted retellings

A review of Enchanted Conversation, Volume 1, Issue 4

by Donglu Yu, http://features.cgsociety.org/story_custom.php?story_id=5132 It’s always satisfying for me to read new fairy tale explorations. It’s even more satisfying when those explorations are from Paradoxes regulars. Issue 4 of Enchanted Conversation features a piece from Eric, who’s been commenting here from the first post. And the magazine itself is largely the idea of Kate Wolford, the editor and a faithful Paradoxes reader. Or perhaps I should say I’m a faithful reader of hers? It sort of happened at the same time, and these things are inevitably subjective.

Issue 4, Hansel and Gretel, is the final issue of a triumphant first volume. It demonstrates a firmer, easier control of the subject matter than in previous issues. Despite diverse and sharply different narrative voices within the issue, it reads as a unified whole, with a striking and appealing harmony. In fact, that harmony is both the issue’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

Enchanted Conversation publishes retellings of fairy tales in prose and verse. Each issue focuses on a single tale; past issues include ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ This issue, intriguingly and all for the good, is the magazine’s first approach to a tale not part of the Disney canon.

My single favourite story was Eric M. Pazdziora’s ‘The White Bird.’ But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m 1) related pretty darn closely to the author and 2) helped editorially to work the story to completion. I really don’t feel I can review it with anything resembling impartiality, so I’ll just say—go read it. It is beautiful and shattering.

The opening story of the issue, ‘Little Hans’ by Erika Tracy, is remarkable and unforgettable. Tracy’s retelling is simple: she tells the tale but sets it in the present day, with modern conventions like nappies and adoption. She presents us with a much younger Hans—only a few months old—than the other versions; her spot-on descriptions of an infant that age give the story a grace and charm that merely heightens the trauma of the ending. It’s really not too surprising that her bio describes her as a new mum. Her Greta is also well drawn, with striking realism and nuanced character development. Tracy’s skill in portraying the children and her Lovecraftian build-up of weirdness horror make this story one of the high points of the issue, and among the finer retellings of this tale that I’ve read.

Several of the stories show a postmodern penchant for genre-splicing. Tahlia Merril, for instance, offers a suitably SF explanation for the witch in ‘Sugarcoated.’ It spoils nothing for this hilarious piece of magic realism to say here that the improbably gingerbread cottage is really a cloaking device for earth-bound alien spacecraft. Another darkly humorous telling is Samuel Valentino’s ‘Cooking Children! with Witch Wanda,’ reassuring readers that everything A-OK—the ‘roasting children in an oven’ bit is just a harmless reality cooking show for cannibalistic witches. It’s a wicked bit of black humour whose inventiveness makes up for some unevenness of style.

In an entirely different vein, Laura Garrison’s ‘The Schwarzwald Incident’ again recalls the spectre of Lovecraft, as the clinical psychologist Dr. Jacob Wilhelm attempts to reconstruct the troubling series of events that led up to the brutal murder of Adelinda Becker, a somewhat reclusive old lady. The story contains transcripts from his interviews with the Hassenpfeffer family, revealing an increasingly dark and emotional tale of domestic neglect. Although a fitting genuflection towards late-Victorian and early modernist weird literature, devotees of Lovecraft and Conan Doyle, while enjoying the tale, will likely miss the narrative adroitness—and sheer terror-inducement—of the Masters.

Most of the stories in the issue, in fact, hold in common with ‘The Schwarzwald Incident’ a dark and distressing picture of Hansel and Gretel’s family life. Notable among these are stories that ask the question: what was life like afterwards? What happened when they got back?

‘A Girl’s Liberation,’ by Paula Jones, one of the best-written stories, reveals their father to be a sort of Bluebeard axe-murdered, having killed both his wives and now stalking Gretel. Other stories also assume—or reveal—the father as a murderer, with either Hansel or Gretel or both showing similarly psychotic tendencies. There appears to be a level of genetic determinism latent here; excepting Jones’s delightfully feminist retelling, these stories offer little hope of redemption or even positive change for the children. These stories also tend to vilify the father to disturbing levels; apparently, the trope of the absent or abusive father is one that resonates depressingly too well with modern readers.

The other—and most predictable—type of story is the tale as told from the witch’s perspective. Of these, Heather Tatty’s ‘The Trouble with Candy Houses’ is perhaps the most unexpected and ambiguous. In convincing first person monologue, the witch—whose reliability as a narrator is never established—tells how she built the candy house, talks about her longing to have children and family of her own, and explains the logical but unsettling growth of the rumours of cannibalism that surround her. It’s a striking, affecting tale with a poignantly open ending that allows the original tale itself to be re-approached and re-written.

The poems were, perhaps, even more diverse than the stories, including works like Wynne Huddleston’s rollicking folk ballad ‘Into the Forest and Through the Woods (A Song of Hansel),’ and Alexandra Seidel’s haunting and lyrical ‘About Roses.’ The poems, less bound to the narrative rhythms of the original tale, appear to have more courage to explore other imaginative and sensory readings of the tale. They also tend to leave more open, and evoke more perfectly the essence of the tale than many of the stories. ‘About Roses’ in particular is an entrancing retelling that could exist only on its poetic merit, and would, in fact, make reading the Grimms’ version afterward a considerable disappointment.

If there is a weakness to these retellings, as I mentioned before, it’s the cohesion between the tales. On completing the tale, I felt that for all their inventiveness the stories seldom escaped the shadow of the Grimms, who through their fastidious revisions acceded the brutality of the original. The tale was retold, but not as often re-imagined; I’m not sure if it was ever interrogated.

The basic assumption of the tale—domestic violence, cannibalism, and child abuse—were with a few notable exceptions accepted and elaborated. We did not have, for instance, a re-imagining like Adelheid Wette’s libretto, where the mother is genuinely loving but worried and angry; in an all-too-characteristic outburst of anger, she tells the children to go to the woods and not come back—unaware that there is a villainous witch lying in wait. I’m not suggesting that Wette’s re-imagining is the best or even the most creative. But it would have been intriguing to see more of that level of interrogation of the tale, overturning the deepest assumptions of the traditional form.

Issue 4 is a brilliant achievement and a welcome addition to the creative world of fairy tale retelling. If the writing styles aren’t always as polished as one would like, the sheer imaginative breadth of tales—while still faithfully following the original—is delightful. A welcome and worthwhile read.

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3 thoughts on “enchanted retellings

  1. I am indeed, a faithful reader. Yours is the only blog I get delivered to my mailbox! Thank you for your kind words and generous assessment of EC.
    The hugeness of the talent pool of writers is daunting. Rejecting people’s work is horrid. Definitely one of the hardest parts. For every good story, there were several more that were also entertaining.
    The first year has been a lesson in both expanding and limiting the scope of EC’s focus. Expanding to let what constitutes a “retelling” be more of an exercise testing the limits of what retelling a tale means, and limiting, because time and money and my platform (Blogger) mean stronger limitations than I had hoped.
    Finding your blog has been one of the joys of editing EC. We must keep egging each other on!

  2. PS: I am also intrigued by the idea of “interrogating” a tale. I think the tales I’ve chosen have been a bit too famous. Next year, with “Rumpelstiltskin,” I hope to see writers feel more freedom to play with the tale. I hope that people will see Rumpel as a tale with no real villain. I also think that while it is well known, it’s nowhere near as famous as “H&G.”

    By the way, my choices may have been influenced by reading the book “Germania,” by Simon Winder. It’s not a smooth read, and it’s not really much about fairy tales, but Germany got into my head in a real way, thanks to the book. I recommend it. Like many English speakers, I know very little of the region before Prince Albert took on Queen Victoria.

    The book also has the great good fortune of having the phrase “tusky lords of the deciduous forest” to describe wild boars. I will go the rest of my life wishing I’d written that.

  3. Thanks, Katew, I’m honoured. I’ll have to look up Winder’s books now. Funny enough, I’m probably more familiar with ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ than I am with H&G, or even B&tB. I knew those tales, of course, but Rumpelstiltskin is one I grew up with. It was a Reading Rainbow book, so maybe that’s why (as I gleefully betray my age). I’ll be looking forward to seeing what EC 2.0 looks like.

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