The Tales Your Mother Didn’t Tell You
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.
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.
You can contact Kate (and submit your own fairy tales) at her website Candlemark and Gleam, Twitter or Facebook.