Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Guest post: The Tales Your Mother Didn’t Tell You by Kate Sullivan


Everyone loves fairy tales. There is just something wonderful about them. Proof is Kate, who as soon as she heard of this Spotlight on Fairy Tales Retold event in its planning phase immediately wanted to participate. She will tell us about the fairy tales she grew up listening to and how different they are from the happily-ever-after Disney versions. I couldn't agree more with her: the fairy tales I read as a child were the original Grimm and Andersen tales: where the evil stepsisters of Cinderella cut off their heels and toes, where the Little Mermaid died at the end of her broken heart, so later discovering that these stories had a different, tamer and rosier version came as a surprise to me too. But I'll stop my yapping now and hand it over to Kate! :-)


The Tales Your Mother Didn’t Tell You
by Kate Sullivan from Candlemark and Gleam

There are faery tales your mother didn’t tell you. They were dark, gory, full of terrible consequences for young boys and girls who didn’t do as they were told—and, often, full of terrible consequences even for the ones who did. They were the sorts of tales that made you remember that the faeries, originally, weren’t happy little Tinkerbell figures or lovely regal beauties out to charm and beguile lucky humans. Oh, they were out to charm and beguile, all right—but the humans they ensnared weren’t so lucky. At best, they could hope to be playthings. At worst, well, it didn’t bear thinking.

There are faery tales your mother didn’t tell you…but mine did. Mine read to me from a massive, dusty old volume of the Brothers Grimm, sometimes even reading me a bit of the German, just for fun. Just to make the monsters—most of them human, and more frightening by far than any creature that went bump in the night—a little spookier, a little more growly and alien, in that tongue that was familiar-but-not to me. In Grimm, girls cut off bits of their feet to try to fit glass slippers; there were no helpful little singing mice, just blood and fear and bitter hope. In Grimm, hearts weren’t just broken, they were cut out and left to dry in the open air; swan princesses were imprisoned, maidens seeking adventure and a mere night of dancing were punished harshly, and girls had to deal with all manner of hostile forces trying to repress them, constrain them, or force them into the role society decreed was best. It was a bleak outlook, to be sure, but it was also a realistic one: For every glimmer of magic and wonder, there was an equal measure or more of warning.

Seeing the Disney versions of these stories told to me by my mother was jarring, to say the least. Since when did the Little Mermaid get a happily ever after? Where did the dancing housewares come from, and what happened to all the death in Beauty and the Beast? That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the movies—everyone needs some escapism, and I loved the bright colours and swirling elegance of the Disney creations. But something about them just didn’t sit right with me; these weren’t the stories of my very young childhood, even though I saw most of them when I was still a child. They were fun, but they weren’t faery tales.


Not all the faery tales my mother told me were so grim—or so Grimm, for that matter. While most of us today are familiar with the original stories, as collected by those good brothers, there are other stories that haven’t made their way into the Western canon. And it’s those tales, mostly, that I cut my teeth on. Clever, beautiful Vasilisa outsmarting Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs. Prince Ruslan pulling one over on the evil sorcerer Chernomor and rescuing the girls of Kiev…all while in drag. The various Ivans bumbling their way around, having adventures with the help of talking woodland creatures much smarter than the human they helped. Story after story about three brothers—finding phoenixes, trying to retrieve the Water of Life, going in search of the Orange Peris. These were the tales of my childhood, taken from a culture that none of my friends, growing up, knew. My friends were mostly English or Italian by blood, with some Irish or French or German thrown in somewhere along the line. Their stories were the familiar ones, the ones Disney took and made touchstones for the whole world. Me, I was the daughter of an immigrant’s daughter, raised thoroughly American but told tales from the Old World, from the countryside outside Kiev, from a town where no one knew if it belonged to Austria or Ukraine at the time my grandfather left.

 I was raised the new way, in the new land, but I was told the old stories—the ones that blend East and West, that are so very similar to tales from China and Persia, but have a distinctiveness, a Ukrainian-ness or a Russian-ness, all their own.

Today, when I read faery tale retellings, I can see the Brothers Grimm shining through. Modern authors are reexamining what we all know, taking those saccharine-sweet versions of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and looking at them again, picking out the threads that made the originals so deeply disturbing, and yet so compelling. It’s a wonderful thing, to see those tales emerge again, told in a thousand different ways, and still always coming back to the fears and the hopes and the warnings at their very center.

And yet, for me, there’s something missing. The tales my mother told me aren’t the ones I hear now, even with this wonderful resurgence of darker faery tales and “truer” tellings. I’m missing all the clever, beautiful girls who got the best of anyone who dared to oppose them, rather than the girls who had to fight just to be a man’s prize. I’m missing all the bumbling older brothers, and the lucky, intelligent, scrawny third son who manages to use his wits and cunning to succeed where all others have failed. I suppose I’m missing the adventures, the strange settings, the fantastic creatures—but mostly, I’m missing the quirky heroes and heroines I grew up with, the smart ones, the cunning ones, rather than the beauties and the brawlers.

But I have hope. Because we are in the middle of a great time for retelling the stories of our childhoods, and seeing them through adult eyes. And because that means that there are others out there who were told tales that other children weren’t, and who are thinking about them even now, wondering how a house can move on chicken legs and how a mountain can be made of glass and a sorcerer’s magic net can turn girls to goldfish.


Kate has been dreaming of running away in a house on chicken legs since she was a little girl, but has settled for working in publishing, up in the wild, wooly mountains of Vermont. There are occasionally moose there, and occasionally ninjas, and occasionally pirate moose, but none have yet whisked her away for more adventures, so she whiles away the days editing other people's stories and coming up with new ones of her own. Her favourite faery tale is Ruslan and Ludmila, although The Firebird is a close second, as is anything with a very clever horse. Someday, she plans to figure out the secret of getting woodland animals to talk to her and bring her interesting swords, even if it means learning Russian again. Until then, she'll content herself with running Candlemark & Gleam and reading your modern-day faery tales - after all, submissions are open!

You can contact Kate (and submit your own fairy tales) at her website Candlemark and Gleam, Twitter or Facebook.

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