It didn't dawn on me until after I had been reading that Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales that I wrote about last weekend was only compiled by her and that the actual fairy tales have been handed down over time by anonymous storytellers. The impetus to (finally) pick up the book in the first place was to read her work, but I'll tell you about my weekend reading anyway (in a way I am reading her work since she selected these stories specifically, right). If you want to read more about Angela Carter's work let me direct you to Caroline's posts here and here and you can check out a list of links to more posts about her work here.
This is a massive and varied compendium of tales and how does one choose what to read? My normal method is to just begin at the beginning and work my way through, but as I know I will only be randomly dipping into this collection over time, I decided to start with the section "Good Girls and Where it Gets Them", which I was fully expecting to be a--it gets them nowhere good. Fairy tales are so often dark and even violent, and it is only in the world of Disney that happily ever afters seem to be the norm, but maybe I haven't read enough to judge?
My favorite so far is a Norwegian tale called "East O' the Sun and West O' the Moon". What a good story and a satisfying one, too. And I have heard that tag line without ever knowing the story behind it and now I do. It begins:
"Once upon a time there was a poor husbandman who had so many children that he hadn't much of either food or clothing to give them. Pretty children they all were, but the prettiest was the youngest daughter, who was so lovely there was no end to her loveliness."
I guess you would call this archetypal? It's a recurring theme in stories. Once upon a time . . . a beautiful child a family with too many children and not enough money to provide for them all. I bet you can almost guess what is going to happen next? Maybe not the specifics, but . . .
It's fall and outside is cold and blustery, the weather is rough and wild and cruelly dark. The family sits around the fire, no doubt reflecting on what a nasty winter they have before them when there is a knock on the door. It is a great white bear who asks the father to give up his youngest daughter. In exchange he will give them so much wealth that they will never want for anything ever again. The daughter says no outright but the father asks her to take a night and think it over and give her answer after a little reflection.
Well, this would solve all the family's problems so she agrees and goes off with the bear. She sits upon his back and they journey for many days, a hard long journey and arrive at a castle--all gold and silver with many, many rooms. She eats and then, so sleepy, asks to sleep. Her bed is made up with silken pillows and gold fringe and it looks as though she will live in a luxurious home. At night the bear comes to her, but in the form of a man. The catch is she is not allowed to see him. he comes in darkness and they spend the night together and he must leave before first light. This goes on for a while. As thrilling as his visits might be, she is lonely and bored during the day hours. When he asks what will make her happy she says to go and visit her mother and father.
He acquiesces, but there is a catch. There is always a catch, isn't there? The bear tells her she may visit, he will take her, but she must not go alone to her mother and talk about her life in the castle. All conversations must be done in front of the whole family, no secrets revealed or it will bring bad luck on both of them. Of course she says she wouldn't dare, but you do know what is going to happen, don't you?
Yes, she spills the proverbial beans and bad luck will be coming there way. First, however, thanks to her mothers advice (maybe you might call it meddling?) she snuck a peek at the bear in his man's form. She had hidden away a little tallow candle. The thing was she only needed to be careful not to drop even a drop of the wax and he would never know. Wax is dropped, he wakes up, but not before she sees him in all his beautiful glory. The white bear is a handsome prince and she has fallen in love. Only to have him wrested away from her now. You see he had a terrible spell cast on him that made him into the bear and now he must marry (a rather unattractive) princess "with a nose three ells long". It's not a happy prospect for the prince as you know he was enamored by the lovely young woman. Instead he is whisked off in anticipation of this betrothal.
What can she do? She's muddled it all. She asks him where is he going, can she go, too? No. If she can seek him out, but the only information she has is that the princess's castle is east o' the sun and west o' the moon. No one seems to know where that is exactly. It's almost a quest that she goes on in search of the prince. She encounters an old hag who lets her take her horse and gives her (the always symbolic) golden apple, and tells her to ride to the next neighbor who might be able to help her out. Well, with each new hag she acquires a number of accouterments that will help her break the spell and get her prince. I won't give away the ending but I had to chuckle that in order to break the spell, washing the wax out of the shirt was the trick to break the bad magic. Hmm. The woman for the prince is the woman who can get the cleanest shirt.
For all that, this was a great story and I enjoyed reading it very much. I do wish Angela carter had written about each and every fairy tale. I can read my own meaning into it, but I would be pleased to hear her take on it all. But as she said in the introduction each tale takes on new meaning with each teller and each reader since we each bring something new and different to it.
I'll enjoy revisiting this book. I was hoping to read some of Angela Carter's short stories (I pulled out my copy of Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories) and have started reading (a rather longish) one called "The Snow Pavilion", but as my post has already gone to the lengthy side, (and I hate to rush my reading unnecessarily) I'll tell you about it next weekend. I'll be back to my regular short story reading then and have some catching up to do with my New Yorker stories, too.