Wendy Froud and Terri Windling, The Faeries of Spring Cottage (Simon and Schuster, 2003)
Regular readers of Green Man Review probably have already figured out, simply by the authors listed above, that we have before us yet another adventure of Sneezlewort Rootmuster Rowanberry Boggs the Seventh (known as Sneezle for short), tree faery of an old hawthorn clan, and a relative youngster, being only 201 years old. For this third outing with Sneezle (the first two were chronicled in A Midsummer Night's Faery Tale and The Winter Child), we are treated to a tale of Sneezle's encounter with the world of humans. The story begins with Sneezle out collecting sticks for a friend when he is suddenly set upon by mysterious creatures made of sticks and mud. Sneezle holds his own against the stick monsters, but is not able to overcome them until it starts to rain and the monsters dissolve.
On his way to tell Oberon, King of the Faeries, Sneezle comes across a young human girl, Rowan, who is innocently trying to make faery dolls; but they aren't turning out quite the way she'd intended. Rowan keeps tossing down each aborted doll, and when she's not present they come to life and once again begin to attack Sneezle. To protect himself, Sneezle hides in Rowan's knapsack, resulting in his being carried to Rowan's home, Spring Cottage.
Sneezle quickly learns through hard knocks the sad history of Spring Cottage: Rowan's grandmother is an artist who could communicate with faeries and so had many faeries, brownies, pixies and so on, in her home. However, grandmother has gotten old and can no longer live in Spring Cottage on her own, so the cottage is taken care of by her daughter, Rowan's mother, who no longer believes in faeries. Rowan herself wants desperately to believe in faeries, but cannot see them. With no one to believe in them, the faeries of Spring Cottage are turning feral and savage and are on the brink of disappearing forever. So Sneezle sets out on a quest to discover a way to save the feral faeries of the cottage and also to procure his freedom from them.
As with the previous two stories, The Faeries of Spring Cottage is lavishly illustrated with photos depicting Sneezle's adventures. For the sake of any reader who may not have had the privilege of reading Sneezle's first two outings, let me explain that the faeries are all inventions of the creative mind of Wendy Froud. To use the word dolls may be technically correct, but it would be like calling Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel "some graffiti on a church ceiling." Froud's creations are wonderful. With only an occasional technical lapse (about which, below), Froud has created a whole world that is believably contained within itself. The pictures are not simply dioramas, but include many close-up shots of the various faeries, revealing much emotion. So enveloping is the effect that when Rowan (depicted by an actual human girl) makes her appearance in the pictures, it seems as if she is the oddity, the not-quite-real character. The magic of faeries is often referred to as glamour, and Wendy Froud's creations remind us why that is. When we read in fairy tales that humans returning to the mundane world are struck by the ugliness of that world, all we have to do is pull out The Faeries of Spring Cottage to see what that means. This is not to say that the young lady portraying Rowan is homely or unattractive (quite the opposite), but she is definitely upstaged by the complete beauty and otherness of the faeries.
There are, however, a few spots where the illusion slips, and one is joltingly reminded that these are just dolls. The most glaring example to me are the stick monsters that Rowan inadvertently sets loose. Windling's text tells us that 'their wicked teeth were as sharp as thorns'. However, the stick monsters we see in the photos have teeth that seem to be a dentist's nightmare, nothing like sharp razors. The otherwise well-executed stick monsters have teeth that look like plasticine dentures created by a two-year old. To make matters worse, there are little vignette shots of the stick monsters throughout the book, so you can never quite forget their horrible orthodontia.
The other point where reality breaks in is in the photo of King Mustapha the Mad in his bath. In that photo, Mustapha's face has a reflective sheen that just screams 'I'm a doll!' I think the intention was to show that he is all wet from his bath, whereas instead it just points out that he isn't real.
But these are minor points when taken in light of the book as a whole. There are just as many bonuses to the careful viewer. My favorite was the titles of the books in the picture of Rowan's room. We see that she has nice old, clothbound editions of Barrie's Peter and Wendy, Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, Stories from the Faerie Queene, Barker's The Book of the Flower Fairies, and amongst all these magical books is tucked Jane Eyre.
What makes the book work so well, however, are not the photos alone. Terri Windling's text is masterfully wedded to the pictures, the two blending together to complement one another. Either element could stand on its own and be considered brilliant, but the two together knock one's socks off. Windling's narrative is subtle, full of throwaway comments that give a sense of depth to Sneezle's world, drawing on many standard tropes of fairy tales. Windling doesn't try to re-create a fairy experience from scratch, but is content to use the well-developed ideas of the past to give her own story a sense of place and time. Further, there is no deep moral being laid on top of the story, interfering with the narrative. It is a story simply told but enchanting in that very simplicity.
I think that I can give the book no greater praise than to say that when I received my review copy I had to retrieve it three times from my pre-teen kids who kept on snatching it up every time my back was turned. I had told them that I was going to be getting a copy of the next Sneezle adventure, and they asked if they could read it first. My sons have read Lord of the Rings and are working their way through the historical adventures of G.A. Henty, yet amid all that sophisticated reading, they still identified with the simple beauty of The Faeries of Spring Cottage.
[Matthew Scott Winslow]