September 30, 2013

Book Review Column: Fairy Tales and Faerie Tales, By Lissa Sloan

Editor's note: Lissa serves up some delightful reading suggestions in her second column. It's the first in what is going to be a ton of new material here at EC, so keep coming back! (And don't forget, the submission window for October opens tonight at 12 a.m. EST and closes at 11:59 p.m., EST, Oct. 2.) Also, if the font seems small today, it is not due to error on Lissa's part or inattention on mine. Blogger is a tricky beast.

Fairy Tales and Faerie Tales (including some favorites): In which I review two collections of fairy tales (both with the same title but with different tales), a tale including fairies from Faerie, and a tale which is both fairy tale and faerie tale.

Lissa's avatar, drawn by Lissa
I begin with two books based on Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, the 1988 TV series which is probably my favorite fairy tale adaptation on screen. Each episode in the series consists of the Storyteller, played by John Hurt, narrating a traditional fairy tale to his canine companion. It is a beautifully written and visualized series, with Henson’s Creature Shop supplying elegant puppets such as an especially spectacular griffin. The 1991 book, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, by series scriptwriter Anthony Minghella, is also a favorite of mine. Minghella sticks very closely to the original material, presenting each of the nine tales featured in the show. While adapted from classic European tales, these stories are nothing Disney has ever attempted. Yes, there are princesses and evil queens, but also a soldier, Death, a boy who doesn’t know what fear feels like, a hedgehog boy, and a giant with no heart. Minghella’s writing style is poetic and playful, and it’s one of the things I love best about the show and this book. The voice of the Storyteller brings to mind the oral origins of fairy tales, and draws the reader in to the fireside right beside him. 

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller Volume 1 (2011) is a graphic novel featuring another nine fairy tales, each by a different writer/illustrator or writer and illustrator team. The tales are again traditional, although in addition to European stories, Japanese, Chinese, and even Appalachian stories are included. The Devil makes an appearance, as do Jack, a frog son, a crane wife, and a peach boy. None of these stories were featured in the TV series, but most are in keeping with the original. For instance, while Minghella’s book leaves out the exchanges between the Storyteller and his dog, including only the stories, all the tales in this version begin and end with the pair, just as the TV episodes do. I especially enjoyed "Old Nick and the Peddler," "Puss in Boots," and "The Crane Wife." As this is a graphic novel, there is much more focus on visual storytelling than language, so it lacks the poetry of Minghella’s version, which I missed. But there is some beautiful art, and the stories are well told and faithful to the spirit of the series. 

Stepping into the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, another favorite of mine, is very like stepping into many British novels of the nineteenth century, complete with carriages, footmen, and cups of tea. But there is one very significant difference—magic. Author Susanna Clarke introduces the reader to an impressively believable historical England, but an England with a long tradition of magic, magicians, and fairies. But all this magic is in England’s past at the start of the book, and awkward, reclusive Gilbert Norrell is the only one in the country who can perform magic at all. When Norrell meets Jonathan Strange, a directionless but inventive gentleman in search of a profession, the two begin a quest to bring magic back to England. 



Clarke’s style is a delightful blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. She is clever and witty, with impeccable command of the language of the period. She conjures a rich, dense world of fairies (the beings), Faerie (the land), and magic which is completely transporting. Strange and Norrell are absorbing, appealing characters despite their faults, and their relationship is an intriguing one. They are joined by a large cast of characters, the Duke of Wellington, King George III, a fairy gentleman with hair like thistle-down, and the elusive Raven King, to name a few, in a story featuring humans abducted by fairies, the war against Napoleon, and a great many entertaining footnotes, some of which read like fairy tales in their own right. Sadly, the book contains some tantalizing ideas that are never satisfactorily wrapped up. It seems to beg for a sequel, but nearly ten years later no sequel has appeared, although Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a lovely short story collection set in the same world. However, Clarke has mentioned the possibility of a sequel, and there is a BBC miniseries in the works for 2014, so a fan can hope.

In The Woodcutter by Kate Danley, the wood is an unusual blend of fairy tale and faerie tale. Classic fairy tale characters mix with pixies, dryads, Oberon, Titania, and even Odin and his Valkyries. But things in this wood are going very wrong. A girl in a ball gown and glass slippers is found inexplicably dead. So are a red-cloaked young girl and her grandmother. It is up to the Woodcutter to solve the puzzle and set the world to rights before it is too late. 

The Woodcutter is part mystery and part fairy tale quest, a quest which is both professional, as it is the main character’s calling to act as ambassador between the red-blooded mortals and blue-blooded fae, and personal. Danley has a pleasing style, and she easily weaves together familiar tales like "Rapunzel" and "Snow White" with tales perhaps not quite so well known, like "Maid Maleen" and "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." Less appealing is the backstory of the world, which consists of twelve kingdoms, different forms of magic, and multiple characters affected by the magic in different ways depending on their blood. All of this makes the through line of the story a challenge to keep up with at times, as I sometimes felt I was missing something. In the end, however, it is worthwhile to accompany the Woodcutter on his quest. He is a well-drawn character, and his moving personal journey is the most compelling element of the story, ending with an unexpected commentary on the real nature of true love.

What are your favorite fairy tale books? Join the Enchanted Conversation and tell us about them. Happy reading!

Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan.

2 comments

  1. I read Jonathan Strange when it was first published and I adored it! Thank you for bring it to the attention of the public these years later; perhaps it will gain a much-deserved new readership!

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  2. Wonderful column and I look forward to reading more. You asked about favorite books of fairy or folk tales. I've read so many it's hard to choose, but I return again and again to Andrew Lang's colored Fairy Books. I know they have been widely criticized but there are lots of little gems in there.

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