The language of story
The boys who love fairy tales too

The impudent heroines of fairy tales

The Green Serpent by H J Ford

Kate Bernheimer Lecture  Tucson  Arizona  Oct 2020

My friend and colleague Kate Bernheimer is one of the modern masters of the fairy tale form, having worked with the tales throughout her career as author, editor, teacher, collector, lecturer, and founder of The Fairy Tale Review. I highly recommend her recent lecture Power Imagined: Fairy Tales as Survival Strategies, in which she discusses Little Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, Snow White, fairy tale history, Jewish history, family trauma, women's trauma, Anne Frank, Amy Winehouse, and so much more. It's simply brilliant. Go here to see it.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy TalesI also recommend Kate's books -- including her adult fiction (The Complete Tales of Kezia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Horse Flower Bird, and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales), her children's fiction (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair), and her essay collections (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales and Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales).

I particularly recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. This book presents fairy-tale-inspired stories by Aimee Bender, Francesca Lia Block, Kathryn Davis, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Vaz, Joy Williams, and many others from across the mainstream fiction/fantasy divide, with a dazzling range of styles from straight-forward retellings to exquisitely fractured experimental forms.

In the volume's Introduction, Kate writes:

Little Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb-Hood"A few years ago I presented a short manifesto about fairy tales to a large audience of creative writing professors and students. I was on a panel dedicated to nonrealist literature. I made an argument that fairy tales were at risk -- they had been misunderstood, appropriated without proper homage by the realists and fabulists alike. Only at a writers' conference could this sort of statement produce a gasp. (Yes, say what you will.) I am always that person in the room telling everyone, genuinely, that I love it all -- realism, high modernism, surrealism, minimalism. I like stories. But apparently my defense of fairy tales, which I consider so poignantly inclusive, marginalized, and vast, was seen as outlandish....My statement, intended to be inspiring, to gather support for this humble, inventive, and communal tradition, created vibration, metallic and sharp. I realized the full weight of the fact that celebrating fairy tales in the center of a talk about 'serious literature' to a roomful of writers was controversial....I realized then that while people may know and love -- or love to hate -- these stories, they really are not aware of the many ways they pervade contemporary literature.

"As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the [American] National Book Awards, states that 'retelling of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible' for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, 'Retellings of slavery, incest,and genocide are not eligible.' Fairy tales contain all of those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply...not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfort a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily understood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order."

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate has done more to champion modern fairy tale literature than anyone else I know, and I could not admire her more for this work. I urge you to take the time to listen to her insightful, timely, witty, and deeply moving talk above.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The passage quoted above is from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, 2010). All rights reserved by the author. The fairy tale drawings above by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), G.P. Jacomb-Hood (1857-1929), and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Thank you so much for the link to this brilliant, inspiring talk.
A gift in a difficult time.
May we all be impudent and thrive on our own terms.

The Impudent Heroine" in fairytales, or local folktales/legends offers us the story of risk and resistance to submission, even utter defeat. The circumstances surrounding her plight are often relatable to one's own human condition or journey. The use of magic becomes a tool of clever application and need rather than simply a surrealistic element of fantasy. The true magic, we possess as individuals, is the power of our mind and will to survive through invention and an intellectual form of trickery to evade our oppressors or rivals seeking to undermine our dreams.

Years ago, while living in Massachusetts, I purchased a book called "Strange and Eerie tales of New England. It comprised old legends, folktales and mythic histories related to the life and times of early colonists and indigenous people. One tale explained how a young girl, an indentured servant who sold herself into bondage and worked for a rich merchant0, was forced to submit to his lust. As a consequence, she became pregnant and feared he would demand she receive an abortion from one of the local wise women. Instead she decided she would face him and demand the right to protect her unborn child.

Though beautiful, she had one serious flaw, she stuttered and felt very awkward when speaking at length. Having grown up in The West indies, she had been exposed to the art of witchcraft and would use it to her advantage. To cure her speech impediment, she would use the poppet as a healing spell, binding her flaw to the doll and tossing it into the fire, thus eliminating her affliction. Her defiance/resolve attests to the courage and strength we all strive to attain in adversarial situations, often ones that seem impossible to escape.

The Poppet

During the day, the servant girl tells time
by the sun and shadows cast
on field and farmhouse floor. A little
past noon, as her cat sleeps. she leaves the hearth
heading toward a curtain of pines
that divides the yard from the corn

The husks hang like wings, flapping
as if they should take flight. She comes
to gather and wrap the weathered strips
into a doll. Something she will toss
into the fire, emblematic
of her dreaded flaw. The stutter she’s endured
since childhood, the voice that makes her feel
less woman than the petite breasts
she’s learned to bolster with a bodice tightly laced.

Her hair and skin run along the bone
smooth as the woodland water
on a still evening. And on such an evening
the owner had his way. A mattress
of soft dirt and moss provided
comfort while the moon loomed
full and high like a womb
that carries a girl child. And now she
is cousin to that moon, wanting to speak
her condition proud and clear, an equal
telling the tall master -- she will not
eclipse the issue and darken it with blood.
So much enjoyed today's post and perspective. Fairytales have a real function and purpose in our lives. Their characters are not mere figments of an illusory world but perhaps an extension of an imaginative one that helps us define our own human story and

Many thanks for this,

Wendy, that story, and your poem, feel pregnant themselves - full of potential to change the reader. Thank you for bringing them here.

Thanks so much Lunar!!

I sincerely appreciate your taking an interest in this piece; and thank you for you kind comments.
Fairytales and their heroes/heroines are very real in my mind and play an important role in shaping our perspective and experience related to our own human story and condition.

Take care

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