Two days ago, February 26th, was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. I am a long-time lover of fairy tales, and I’ve blogged in honor of this day twice before. Over the years, I’ve collected a good shelf’s worth of fairy tales,* and I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. One of my favorites is World Tales, in which Idries Shah has collected tales that have been told in many different cultures around the world, with striking parallels. Did you know there are over 300 known variations of Cinderella? I think my favorite is the one in this book, “The Algonquin Cinderella.” As in the well-known tale, the heroine, marred by cinders, suffers from the cruelty of two sisters. But the result of her goodness is much greater than simply marrying a charming prince. Because she can perceive wonders, she becomes the bride of the beautiful and powerful Invisible One.
Reading in my own fairy tale collections over the years, I’ve often felt a shiver of recognition while reading a tale, an echo that this tale reverberates in some other land, some other time. One is the story of “Catherine and Her Fate.” Catherine is given a fateful choice by her Destiny in both World Tales and The Pink Fairy Book (edited by Andrew Lang): she can be happy in her youth or in her old age, but she must choose which.
The shiver of recognition became a thrill of pleasure when I realized some of my favorite stories have been told in many places over many centuries. One is “Mastermaid,” which I found both in World Tales and Tatterhood (edited by Ethel Johnston Phelps). A good-hearted but rather bumbling young prince is saved from his dangerous naïveté by Maj the Mastermaid. When he forgets her wise advice, they both have trials to go through.
Another tale I love goes by many names and the heroine has many faces: “Clever Manka” in Tatterhood, “The Maiden Wiser than a Tsar” in World Tales, and “The Innkeeper’s Wise Daughter” in Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters (edited by Kathleen Ragan). The young woman’s wit and wisdom not only saves her father (sometimes his very life), but restores harmony, love and respect to her marriage.
I was excited to stumble upon a much-loved tale twice in my recent reading. It is known as “The Tsaritsa Harpist” in Fearless Girls, and “The Lute Player” in both Tatterhood and The Violet Fairy Book (edited by Andrew Lang). A brave lady seeks to ransom her beloved husband by becoming a wandering minstrel. I feel I have also encountered this as an ancient ballad. This tale echoed in my mind for so long, it turned into a song which came out in a novel I’ve written, where it takes on the yearning for homecoming after long journeys.
These are excellent collections of fairy tales and I deeply enjoyed reading them. But for some stories I have wanted to write a different ending. Like the kind Fisherman who saves the life of a magical, wish-granting flounder, and whose wife demands ever more grandiose and outrageous things. When the wife orders her long-suffering husband to tell the flounder she wants to be Ruler of the Universe, I dearly want the fisherman to say, “No, Wife – I’m done. You tell him if you dare!” In my mind, when the wife gets her comeuppance (very merciful in the old story, I think), the fisherman returns to the humble life he loves, blessed with abundant catches.
And then there is “Kari Woodengown.” Of all the fairy tales I’ve read and heard, I’ve only encountered this one in Tales from the Red Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang.
Kari endures some of the troubles of Cinderella, with absent or dead parents and unkind stepmother and stepsister. But Kari befriends a great blue bull, and they face and overcome hardships together as they flee her cruel stepfamily. I have a faint memory-impression that I was charmed by this story when I read it decades ago as a kid. No doubt that was partly because of the wise and powerful talking bull. But this time I was not charmed. When I reached the end, I was so indignant, it spurred me to actually write my own retelling. But that’s a tale for another day.
Speaking of retelling…folk tales are closely intertwined with fairy tales, sometimes only lacking outright magic. For a fine retelling of the Stone Soup folktale, have a look at VT Dorchester’s “Horseshoe Nail Stew” in Frontier Tales. I may be a bit biased, but I think there may be some quiet magic worked in the hearts of some of the story’s people by the end.
*In case it’s not always evident, all books pictured are my own well-worn copies. My copy of Tatterhood is lacking its dust cover so I’m showing the title page.
Fun post, Gemma. Do all fairy tales begin “once upon a time,” making them timeless in themselves? Do they all end “happily ever after” or do they never end at all?
Fairy tales seem to have myriad ways to say, “In a time not our own…” Sadly, not all end happily ever after. But as long as we’re reading and telling them, in a sense they do not end, just as you say. And so some new teller can bend the ending to a happier one.
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I might be biased, but I think this is a nice post 😉
Well, we own up to our biases, that’s a start, right? 😉 And I think there must be some magic to turn four stones and a horseshoe nail into a delicous stew. 🙂