A review of Yei Theodora Ozaki’s Japanese Fairy Tales (2015 [originally 1908], JMJ Publishing)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Filled with magic and wonder with supernatural beings and powerful animals, this is a fascinating volume of tales. However, reading through it, it is clear that it was meant for an anglo-American audience and the tales collected are highly modified for those intended readers. Although in some cases, Japanese phrases are used, much of the collection favours the words and phrases and telling style of Anglophone fairy tales. The volume reveals its age by translating even words which have entered common English parlance such as Samurai (instead translating it as “knight”) and “oni” is translated as “ogre”. Instead of Kami and Yokai, spirits in this collection are called “fairies”, a label that doesn’t quite fit them.
However, these are still powerful tales about human encounters with a complex and confusing world. The stories explore intergenerational issues and misunderstandings, jealousy, love, loyalty, and honour. The tales are populated with arrogant figures needing to learn their lessons, cruel-hearted people needing to transform, and acts of violence that need to be atoned for. They are tales where help appears in strange and unexpected places and where any stranger could be a spirit in disguise.
Curses and Blessings A review of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (Harper, 1997) By Derek Newman-Stille
Ella Enchanted is a fascinating take on the Cinderella tale that exposes issues of patriarchal control in fairy tales. Ella of Frell is given a gift by a fairy at birth, something that in other fairy tales would be a blessing, but Ella comes to see her “gift” as a curse. Thinking young women should be compliant, the fairy Lucinda gives her the “gift” of obedience. No matter what she wants to do, she has to follow any command given to her. Being a person with a powerful personality, Ella does not submit easily, but finds ways to rebel against her curse by resisting it as long as she can (often to the point of pain) and by finding ways to comply with someone’s command without granting them their desires.
Gail Carson Levine’s version of the Cinderella tale is one of resistance and of a woman who seeks to make her own way in the world while everyone around her tries to control her. It is a tale that critiques recent Cinderella tales that espouse the idea that wishes can come true and that magic always helps. In Ella Enchanted, magic is dangerous, often bringing with it dire results.
Gail Carson Levine critiques fairy tales on multiple levels in her tale. By making Ella a person who loves fairy tales, Carson Levine makes her character a critical witness to the creation of fairy tales. Ella is given a book of fairy tales by a fairy that gives substance and character development to the tales. We are told by Ella that she encounters “a real fairy tale this time, “the Shoemaker and the Elves.” In this version, though, each elf had a personality, and I came to know them better than the shoemaker. And I finally understood why the elves disappeared after the shoemaker made clothes for them.” Carson Levine provides us with a microcosm of what she is doing with Ella Enchanted, providing readers with a fairy tale where characters are given personalities and substance and supernatural beings are more than just deus ex machina. Where most traditional fairy tales, like those of the Grimm Brothers, tend to focus on the story over the personalities of the characters, Gail Carson Levine creates a character-driven narrative that allows the reader to have an insight into the personalities of the characters.
Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches
By Derek Newman-Stille
Most readers probably best know Hekate from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where her name is spelled “Hecate” and she appears before the three witches, angry at their interactions with Macbeth. The association between witches and Hekate extends back long before Shakespeare and in the ancient Greek and Roman world she was frequently referred to as the goddess of witches.
Hekate was a Titaness, a race of deities before the Olympain gods and is often associated with Chthonic things (underworldly things). She is frequently depicted holding torches, and occasionally with a black dog since black dogs were offered to her as sacrifices. She has an association with crossroads and texts often portray her rituals happening at crossroads. She is often depicted as having three forms as Hekate Triformis.
Not only was Hekate considered a goddess of witchcraft, she was also associated with the night, the moon, necromancy (divination through the dead), and ghosts in general. Her approach was believed to be preceded by the howling and wining of gods and she was described as wandering along with the restless dead. Yet despite her frightful associations, she was often associated with protection and her shines were often placed at dangerous areas like crossroads and doorways (areas where things intersect). The ancient Greeks often used frightful imagery as apotropaic charms (charms to ward off evil), frequently employing Medusa’s frightening visage for this purpose, so it makes sense that Hekate, a goddess with frightful associations, would be used in a similar vein.
Her helpful form shows up in the Kore/Persephone myth. When Hades abducts Kore/Persephone, Demeter searches for the young goddess who was her daughter and Hekate aids her in her search. She is even described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as “tender-hearted” and “bright-coiffed”.
Hecate is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony where she is described as a goddess who was honoured “above all” by Zeus, who gave her shares of the earth, sea, and sky. Hesiod associates her with giving wealth to human beings, bestowing judgement, and giving victory in games.
One of the most famous witches in Ancient Greek literature, Medea, is described as a priestess of Hekate in The Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius. Unlike most priestesses, who learn their worship from other priestesses, Medea was described by Apollonius as learning her craft directly from the goddess. In the Argonautica, Apollonius refuses to describe the rituals Medea performs to Hekate, saying “For Medea bade them land and propitiate Hekate with sacrifice. Now all that the maiden prepared for offering the sacrifice may no man know, and may my soul not urge me to sing thereof. Awe restrains my lips, yet from that time the altar which the heroes raised on the beach to the goddess remains till now, a sight to men of a later day” (translated by Douglas Killings). For Apollonius, Hekate’s rituals were meant to be kept a mystery and veiled in secrecy. Apollonius does let slip that honey was used as an offering to the goddess. When Medea’s husband, Jason, invokes the goddess, Apollonius describes the ritual: “he dug a pit in the ground of a cubit’s depth and heaped up billets of wood, and over it he cut the throat of the sheep, and duly placed the carcas above; and he kindled the logs placing fire beneath, and poured over them mingled libations, calling on Hekate Brimo to aid him in the contests. And when he had called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of the underworld. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis” (translated by Douglas Killings). Hekate’s presence causes fear and dread to spread and even the sound of her steps scare away other supernatural creatures like nymphs.
Ovid describes the shrine to Hekate that Medea visits as being deep in the forest.
In Euripides’ play Medea, the witch Medea calls upon her chosen goddess by saying “So help me She who of all Gods hath been the best to me, of all my chosen queen and helpmate, Hekate, who dwells apart, the flame of flame, in my fire’s inmost heart” (translated by Gilbert Murray) before she proceeds to kill her own children. Hekate is evoked by Medea both to help protect Jason, and then to take vengeance on his children.
The Roman playwright Seneca also wrote a version of Medea‘s story, and in it, he refers to Media setting up an altar to Hekate within her house. She invokes the goddess with the words “Now summoned by my rites, appear, you heavenly globe of night, displaying your most hostile looks, with menace in every face”, Hekate is associated with the moon in this prayer and is multifaced. Medea later refers to Hekate receiving her prayers with the words “My prayers are received: Thrice has bold Hekate vouchsafed the barking of dogs, and set off uncanny fires with her light-bearing torch”.
Hekate was frequently evoked in curse tablets in the ancient Greek and Roman world, her name inscribed on iron alongside the intended victim. The iron was then pierced with nails and dropped into areas that were considered close to the underworld like underground springs, caves, and graveyards.
The Orphic Hymn to Hekate refers to her primarily as the goddess of roads and crossroads and calls her a “tomb spirit, revelling in the souls of the dead”, yet the hymn also calls her beautiful. It reveals that she is a goddess of complexity and contradiction. She is described as norcturnal, monstrous, and repelling… but it also calls her a beautiful goddess, a youth, and a maiden. She is described as delighting in wild places and loving deer, but she is also described as a devourer of beasts.
Hekate, like magic itself in the ancient Greek and Roman world, is complex, multifaceted, and inconsistent. Her complexity may be reflected in the fact that she is depicted with three forms, not able to capture her contradictory nature in one single form.
A review of Steven Grimm’s “Villainess Ascending” in He Sees You When He’s Creepin’: Tales of Krampus (World Weaver Press, 2016)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Folklore and fairy tale collide in Steven Grimm’s “Villainess Ascending”, a tale that adds a monstrous twist to the tale of Cinderella. Grimm begins his story with the mythology that there have been multiple past Cinderellas and this one has gone through the same things as the others – a dead devoted mother, a remarried father, a stepmother and two stepsisters and like the other Cinderellas, this one doesn’t want a life of domestic servitude. Yet, Grimm adds a twist to the tale, setting the Prince’s ball near Krampusnacht, a time when the Austrian devil of Christmas, Krampus, is out prowling the world for people in need of punishment.
Krampus and Cinderella have something in common. They both want justice… and the punishment of those they view as wicked and Grimm intertwines their narratives in a way that adds nuance to both the folklore of Krampus and the fairy tale of Cinderella. Grimm’s tale draws on other figures from Austrian holiday legends as well, bringing in Frau Holle and Frau Perchta. Frau Holle (about whom the Grimm Brothers have also written a fairy tale) is able to bring on snowfall by shaking out her bedding and her tales generally revolve around rewarding people for hard work and punishing people for laziness. Frau Perchta has a more sinister presence in Austrian folklore and is generally portrayed as having two faces – one kind and gentle and the other demonic. During the yule holidays, she shows her good face to good children and gives them treats… but shows her demonic face to naughty children to punish them. Frequently she is portrayed slitting open the bellies of children, removing their organs, and filling their bodies with pebbles and straw. Steven Grimm’s Perchta isn’t quite as terrifying though she is connected to Krampus. Instead, she is a force of nature with otherworldly magical powers and an interest in seeing humanity become good rather than corrupt.
“Villainess Ascending” is a tale about the damage that patriarchy does to humanity. It is a story about the way that patriarchy has taken away rights from women and has often only allowed women success in the world through marriage rather than through their own skills and abilities. Steven Grimm’s story focusses on the messages in the Cinderella tale about beauty meaning success, about the only way for women to rescue themselves from poverty is through marriage to a rich man, and about the intentional toxicity of the prince’s ball and generating jealousy between women.
Grimm subverts the simple idea of the punishment of the wicked by pointing out that “wickedness” has social roots and is created by social structures that damage people in oppressed groups.
A review of Roz Rozen’s “Cinderella” in Deaf Culture Fairy Tales (Savory Words, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Roz Rosen tells a tale of a Deaf Cinderella who has been encouraged in her use of sign language until her mother dies and her hearing step mother and step sisters prevent her from using her own language. Indeed, from the moment she meets Cinderella, the stepmother feels disgust at her step daughter for being death, describing her as “burdensome”. Despite talking about her as a burden, the stepmother forces Cinderella to do all of the work around the house, refusing to learn sign language and instead yelling at her step daughter.
Cinderella experiences extreme isolation in her inability to express herself to her family and their prevention of her using her own language. She is only able to sign when she is by herself, engaging in sign singing with the animals around her while she works, tying a close bond to her animal friends and expressing her need for a change in the oppression she is experiencing every day of her life. Her community of animal friends refuses to let her give up on her dream of a change in her life, signing at her that she can make the impossible possible.
When Cinderella encounters her fairy godmother, she discovers that the words her animal friends have been signing to her are a magic spell and she uses them to transform her rags into a magnificent gown. When this Cinderella finally meets her prince, she fears that he won’t accept her once he discovers that she is Deaf and will treat her the way that her stepmother and stepsisters have. But, when he sees her sign, he responds in sign, telling her that his kingdom uses sign language on the battle field. Before she can share details about her identity with him, she is forced to leave and loses her glass slipper on the steps.
This Cinderella is able to distinguish herself from other women in the kingdom not by fitting into a glass slipper, particularly since her stepmother breaks the slipper, but, rather, through her ability to use sign language and she and the prince are able to create a kingdom of access by making sure that ASL is taught throughout the kingdom, preventing others from experiencing the isolation of being surrounded by those who can’t or won’t speak to them.
Rosen’s tale is one of linguistic isolation as much as it is about being treated as a servant. It is about a denial of access to Cinderella’s language and culture, her ability to express herself, and her ability to be part of conversations around her home. This is a tale about a revision of a society that privileges spoken languages into one that provides a space for bilingualism, allowing for ASL (standing for Amina Sign Language) and English. Rosen’s Cinderella doesn’t just change social status as many Cinderella characters do in fairy tales, rather, she changes the status of Deaf people in her kingdom, creating a space where language multiplicity is the norm.
A review of Sarah Pinborough’s Charm: A Wicked Cinderella Tale (Titan Books, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille
What does it mean to live your whole life imagining court life and fantasizing about princes and castles only to be offered everything you’ve always wanted? What does it mean to grow up in a household where your stepmother and stepsisters come from noble bloodlines but you come from more humble origins? Is beauty or noble blood more important?
Sarah Pinborough’s Charm transforms the quintessential Love at First Sight story into a gothic romance, populated with hidden truths, secrecy, locked doors with hidden keys, curiosity, jealousy, dusty old turrets, and dark corridors hung with cobwebs. Pinborough explores the darker side of Cinderella, warning her readers of the danger of getting everything you wish for and pointing out that sometimes the dream is better than the reality you dream of.
Pinborough highlights the potential problems of Cinderella’s magic slippers, pointing out the issues of consent for a Prince who has been forced by magic to fall in love with a woman that he couldn’t even recognize outside of her slippers. She asks what happens when the slippers come off and the prince goes back to his non-spell-addled self. Court life isn’t the dream that Cinderella imagined and full of a lot more darkness than she had envisioned. Just like her slippers, Cinderella is about to discover that her imagined perfect life is nothing more than outer dressings.
A review of Sarah Pinborough’s Beauty (Titan Books, 2015)
By Derek Newman-Stille
In Beauty, Sarah Pinborough draws on the dark ink of multiple fairy tales, pulling them together into a cauldron to remake them into a new tale with a twist. She draws together resonances between traditional stories, looking for those murky edges where they can connect together, weaving a tapestry between Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Red Ridinghood, and Rumplestiltskin and pulling together their grim possibilities.
Pinborough twists these tales, leaving threads of familiarity for her readers, but weaving them into a new, uneasy tale.
Pinborough challenges some of the characteristics that people frequently associate with fairy tales, using the voice of her Little Red Ridinghood character to call attention to the difference between peasant narratives and those of nobles, drawing attention to the problematic ideas of consent around the kissing of a Sleeping Beauty, pointing out the dangerous nature of love-at-first-sight and its relationship to ideas of control. Beauty invites questions about wishes and the danger associated with getting the things you ask for. It points out the dangers of privilege. It plays with the allure of magic and the complications that come with power. Beauty is a tale of warnings and an invitation to constantly ask questions, particularly when things seem to come far to easily.
To discover more about Sarah Pinborough, visit https://sarahpinborough.com/