If you’ve ever read a fairy tale, you know pretty well how the story will go. A brave young hero sets out into the woods to seek fortune, or fame, or both, eventually finds an enchanted elm tree or an beehive at the bottom of the sea, where she also finds a handsome prince squashed in an enchanted honeycomb or transformed into a squirrel, so she kills the queen-bee or finds the golden acorn, frees the prince back to his own handsome self and, reader, she marries him. That old story.
But I do wonder whether, in the easy familiarity with these tales, we’ve forgotten the first part—the most important part in which the hero must walk by herself through the dark forest, pathless, uncharted, and lightless. I wonder if we’ve forgotten, in other words, that the hero must first confront and conquer a very real and very deep fear, and pass through the dark places of the woods.
Terri Windling and others have pointed out the importance of the dark forest not only to fairy tales, but to the whole creative process. And I found myself in the thick of it again, in amongst the shadows, as I worked on the two newest publications from Unsettling Wonder: The Museum of Shadows and Reflections, a collection of new fairy tales by Claire Dean, and our new issue on the theme of Changelings. It soon felt uncanny in the dark woods of creation and production, as if the topics of these works were unfolding around me.
Two projects of which I was and am deeply proud seemed, day after week after month, stalled and lethargic, bedeviled by setbacks and lacking momentum. It felt like two bouncing, healthy books had been changed, spirited away, for feeble, listless and lifeless things. At the same time, it seemed everywhere I turned, every time I sent an email about either of the projects, more bad news, another bereavement, another illness, someone’s life in unexpected upheaval. Each book was brought in to the world through a spider-web tangle of sad stories.
All the shadows and bogies of the modern worlds seemed to be swarming round me as I worked. I don’t mind admitting that a few times I nearly despaired of finishing these projects at all. And yet, in the end, in spite of—or perhaps, because of?—everything we all went to, here they are: bright and glittering, breathtakingly beautiful.
Does it sound too odd to say that I’ve come to think of these books as sisters? Not in a binary sense: elder-younger, bad-good, toads-diamonds. Not quite twins either, but more like children somehow born at the same moment, despite having different mothers—more like the two unsettling siblings who lie on the cover of Changelings, in Fedralita’s haunting illustration. Here we are, they seem to say, each of us distinct yet each of us rooted to the other, tangled and grown together so strong you cannot sunder us.
Dean’s fairy tales give a voice to the marginalized, ignored, and belittled; metamorphosis becomes, in these tales, not simple escape but direct, forceful engagement with the world. The writers and artists in Changelings find uncanny beauty ina topic which is still taboo, and would always be upsetting even if we could discuss it freely.
Both these books are filled and flowing with what Jane Yolen calls tough magic: the unrelenting, compassionate gaze of the fantastic on the mundane, the fairy-tale mirror that undoes the distortions of everyday life to show us our own faces, in all their glory and sadness, struggle and beauty. This, after all—the bright, sudden sight of truth refracted and reflected in and through us—is the first and greatest gift of a wonder tale.