Fairy Tales · Introduction

Fairy Tales (and Books, and Me)

Hi. I’m obsessed with fairy tales. And books. And mythology, and folklore, and variations thereof, and this blog was begun as a knee jerk reaction to a conversation with my grandmother about life.

Ahem. Let me start at the beginning. I’m a graduate student of biology. Specifically, neurobiology. If you ask me about it in this blog, I will probably not respond. Not because I don’t enjoy what I do—but let me explain about the reason for this blog’s existence first. I’m currently on vacation (supposedly—really I still have lots of things I ought to be doing and am just procrastinating some more to de-stress), and staying with an aunt and one pair of grandparents. I talk about books—a lot. My grandmother is part of a book club, and the last time they had a gathering, it was here. I took up a good hour when I’d just gone downstairs for coffee, because they asked me for book recommendations. I recommended to them Eva Ibbotson…and talked about her and her books for an hour. But the thing is, this isn’t even a rare occurrence. At this point, most people who know me should know: don’t get me involved in a discussion about religions, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, or books I like unless you’re prepared to spend at least an hour more in that discussion.

On this particular day, though, my grandmother waited until her book club had gone home to point out, “You love your stories so much,” which of course I do, and “Don’t you think you could make a career of it?” Now, at this point, I feel I should point out that my undergraduate degree was in the social sciences. Yes, I’ve always had more affinity towards the natural sciences, but I really do more enjoy talking about folktales and mythologies of all sorts and sometimes history. But the thing is, I like being involved in more than one area at once—it makes me enjoy everything all the more, where feeling like I’m stuck in one place takes a lot of the enjoyment out of being there for me. I’ve found that when I’m in the social sciences, my conversations tend to revolve around similar areas, and when I try to talk about natural sciences, it takes a very particular type of person to be willing to participate in that discussion.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit burnt out after finishing my Master’s thesis, but I’m at present in a place where I really, honestly don’t enjoy repeating myself. In particular, I don’t enjoy rehashing my thesis again and again with every new person I meet. I talk about it often enough with supervisors, examiners and classmates. I find it tiresome to hold the same conversation with family, friends and acquaintances—and repeatedly, at that. My strategy is this: gloss over it with a set of carefully chosen technical words spoken very quickly, and after an exchange or two, change the topic.

Yes, it’s a little cold. If they really seem interested, I offer family and friends the option of reading the thesis for themselves, if they really want to, explaining why I really don’t feel like reciting the contents of those 50 pages again. So far, only one person’s said yes—and she still hasn’t read it 3 months later. If  you ask me, this means that no one is really all that interested.

So, that’s the background of me and my mental state. But that’s all been more of a rant and one really long complaint. Now let me tell you about the things I love to talk about.

Fairy tales, for one. The beauty of this topic is that it’s universal. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t know any fairy tales. Most often it’s Disney, yes, and I take (possibly slightly perverse?) pleasure in debunking the beliefs of people who believe that True love’s First Kiss™ existed before Walt Disney. Because, really, that concept changes one’s view of the stories entirely. Disney’s view of fairy tales is that love is a universal healer of all problems, particularly with that precious first kiss. And this view is beautiful and colorful and definitely has made its place in the world. Furthermore, it’s not as though Disney pulled the idea completely out of thin air; Perrault’s Briar Rose was no doubt instrumental in forming the idea. Nevertheless, I more often enjoy the older versions because before the power of kisses, there was strength, pain and perseverance. There was filial love and sisterly love, and there were women who grew and changed.

I’m now going to go into some of the fairy tale etymologies that I dazzle people with most often. If you’re interested, surlalunefairytales.com is an excellent source of information.

A lot of people (including my grandmother) assume that the brothers Grimm are as far back as we can trace fairy tales, because even though they existed, surely they were all oral traditions that can’t be traced back any further! This is not true. Cinderella, for instance, has origins in China before it turned up in Germany…and in Egypt before it turned up in China! Sleeping Beauty’s kiss is the only version I know of that preceded Disney with the idea of a kiss breaking a spell, but in versions preceding Perrault she was a girl named Talia who was raped in her sleep, and woke because the son she’d just given birth to sucked the spindle out of her finger looking for a nipple (and believe it or not, the story continues rolling rapidly downhill after that). My favorite fairy tale of all time is Beauty and the Beast; and not just Villeneuve’s version, but all versions. I read Cupid and Psyche, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and Beauty and the Beast all separately and fell in love with each individually before I realized that they were all one story, scattering and changing through cultures and the ages. After that, I went off chasing more versions, but those three remain closest to my heart. I continue to chase down every version I can find, modern versions included.

And this brings me to books that I read. I used to read everything. As a girl, I devoured mysteries starting with Nancy Drew, through a great many random books that included some memorable ones but mostly books I can only vaguely remember, and then to the classics: Christie and Doyle especially. The Seer and the Sword was the book that carried me into fantasy when I was 12. I’d read fantasy before—I’m pretty sure I was a die-hard fan of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings at the time—but I was really more of a mystery girl. The Seer and the Sword changed that. I don’t know what it was about that book, because I know for sure that if I read it now, I’d pass it off with a, “Good but not particularly memorable,” and it would join the mountains of unmemorable books that inhabit my past. I’m not even going to try to figure out what it was. But something about it made it perfect from beginning to end to that 12-year-old me, and for several years thereafter I left mystery girl behind to become fantasy and sci-fi girl. My first discovery of epic fantasy after Tolkien was Eddings. I found the Elenium before the Belgariad, and read the Belgariad entirely in the wrong order without realizing it until I was nearly finished. So then I re-read all 12 books of the Belgariad, the Malloreon, Belgarath and Polgara again, in the proper order. I hunted down Eddings’ books hungrily, and lastly found his non-fantasy, which was of course well-written but depressing. After that I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, and got even more depressed.

So my mother had a, “You are what you read” conversation with me, and I went in search of something more cheerful. I stumbled across Robin McKinley’s Spindle’s End. Would you believe that despite my love of fairy tales, I’d never known that there were modern interpretations before? And so it became a mission of mine, finding more. I read Rose Daughter and Beauty, Deerskin, Outlaws of Sherwood and decided to look for other authors. For some reason, I came across a staggering number of Sleeping Beauty interpretations, which alarmed me (I already knew about Talia, you see). But I picked one that didn’t seem like it would be depressing, which was Mercedes Lackey’s Gates of Sleep. It wasn’t depressing, but nor was it all that memorable. Around the same time, I was introduced to Philip K. Dick and Michael Crichton, and learned to love science fiction, too.Anyway, there began two separate journeys: that of me as a general fantasy/sci-fi reader, and that of me as a hunter of any version of any fairy tale, folktale or legend I knew. With some (though only Tam Lin comes to mind at the moment), I found an interpretation first and that prompted me to go and find the original.It reached a climax in my last half year of undergraduate studies, when I was accepted to graduate school. You see, my graduate school was not only in a non-English speaking country, but in a not-very-large “city.” I (more correctly than I knew at the time) realized that I probably wouldn’t have much access to non-academic books once I got there. I decided, therefore, to stock up on stories. Through liberal use of interlibrary loan, Sur la Lune, Google and a few other random sources, I ordered every single fairy tale retelling I could find that I hadn’t read yet. The list came to about 200 books, as I recall, though it’s all a bit fuzzy since I would tally it up, and then realize that wait, there were more that I hadn’t ordered yet! —and promptly proceed to order those, too. Just to be clear, there was no limit on how many books one could request at once.

I wish I could say I read them all. I really do. At first, I did. My university’s library had none of them (because if they did, I’d read it in previous years) so they came in slowly—well, relatively. At one point 30 books came in at once, and the librarian’s eyes bugged out when I told her cheerfully that this wasn’t even half of what I already had in my room as I piled the books into a backpack and a tote bag and carried the remaining ones in my arms. But then there was real life to take care of, and deadlines kept coming up. Some couldn’t be renewed. Some could, but only once or twice. I read over half of what I’d ordered. But the rest I could only skim. Nearly every version of Beauty and the Beast got read, and the Wild Swans, as did every interpretation of something I hadn’t known there were interpretations of. Scarborough Fair, for example. But that was a dark book.

Anyhow, I still do this from time to time, though not on that scale! Whenever I have access to them, I also find the books that I only skimmed to read them properly. I’m back to reading a variety of genres, though in the last two years or so I’ve learned that I am developing certain preferences that are as against certain authors as I develop preferences for certain authors.As you may have noticed from how long this already is, I’m not generally one to hold my tongue about an opinion. So if I really don’t like an author, I know that I’m unlikely to be diplomatic about it. That’s why, in the interest of fairness, I have a rule: read at least 3 books by an author before denouncing them. In most cases, this has worked wonderfully, because in reading 3 books, I tend to find something somewhere that I like. Some, though, just make things worse. I’ll try not to talk about these authors too much, but I can’t make any promises.

So! Since it’s 7 o’clock in the morning, and exhaustion has made me completely loose-tongued (or quick-fingered, in this case) this is a perfect opportunity to talk about some of my absolute favorite books, don’t you think?And thus I leave to make my first post. McKinley or Ibbotson, I wonder?

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