Fairy tales have their roots in the far distant past, in legendsand tales of survival as the heroines and heroes venture into theworld, slaying demons and surviving endless trials of strength onlyto return home, transformed. Originally collected as a form of folkmemory, fairy tales, like so many robust and earthy thought forms,fell prey to the anemia of Victorian mores and came back to life asbloodless insipid stories of passive characters acted upon byFate.
The Armless Maiden reinterprets classic fairy tales withreference to contemporary issues of childhood. In short stories,essays and poems the various authors examine the issues of confusion,fear, and, ultimately, survival.
This is a strongly cohesive collection. Windling has once againassembled the finest in contemporary masters of fantasy. This timeshe has a more refined goal: not just to reinterpret classic fairytales, but to extricate the subtle horrors of wicked stepmothers andover-affectionate fathers-- in fact, to bring strong attention to the horrors of child abuse and our societal tolerance of thesebehaviors.
In the title story, "The Armless Maiden," Midori Snyder writes anempowering and different ending to a tale with variations in culturesaround the world. A young woman, mutilated and left to die by hernearest male kin, survives and is saved by the proverbial handsomeprince of all fairy tales. What happens after "and they lived happilyever after" is the real story. While staying true to the originaltale, Snyder uses traditional symbolism to add hope to a tragictale.
Peter Straub rewrites "The Juniper Tree," bringing the story of anabandoned and neglected boy into the movie star surrealism of smalltown America in the 1950s. As the nameless young hero struggles tomake sense of his parents and his place in the family, a ragged manin an overcoat befriends him at the movies. Peter Straub brings hissinister and clever language skills into play as we wonder who is thereal hero, and more disturbingly, who is the real villain in thestory.
[Editor's Note: Brendan Foreman informs me that, in aparticularly postmodern twist, "The Juniper Tree" shows up in PeterStraub's creepy 1988 novel Koko as a short story written by acharacter named Tim Underhill.]
The collection is not without humor and irony. Snow Whiteundergoes analysis and we learn how she really felt about thosedwarfs in Stephen Gould's "The Session." Snow muses on the effects ofher strange experiences in childhood and her relationship with herfather, all the while hoping to prevent exposing her own littledaughter to the same terrors. The analyst, while maintaining thecareful distance of all good therapists, provides some pointedquestions about the outcome of Snow White's life.
The poetic contributions to the anthology are outstanding. LouiseGluck writes of a sister's poignant cry for recognition in "Gretel inDarkness." As Hansel gets on with things, living in the world, Gretelcries out in shame and sorrow at her crime -- killing the witch whothreatened her brother's life.
Emma Bull details the sorrow of the witness in "The Stepsister'sStory." The younger of Cinderella's stepsisters, along now by thehearth, cries out for the relationship that she lost along with hertoes at that fateful fitting of the Glass Slipper.
Anne Sexton's poem, "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)" is a strong andpowerful statement of the effect of acceptable behavior by fathersand uncles on young girls. Speaking of lifelong insomnia andinability to trust, Sexton relates the story of Sleeping Beauty tothe numbness of women abused as children.
The essays contributed by the various authors provide thoughtfulanalysis, not only of the role abuse has played in the development ofthese tales, but the ongoing contribution of society to the denialthat allows this abuse to continue. Terri Windling, especially,writes with personal knowledge of the ways children cope with ongoingneglect and abuse. Her essay focuses on the different views eachchild in the family has of the situation, but also on the concept ofsurvival and the fact that awareness of events and honesty inadmitting the existence of the condition of abuse is the only way torout the evil out where it grows.
This is a strong and startling anthology of tales, far removedfrom the vapid tales that are interpreted as fairy tales forchildren. Retaining the original framework of tales from the earliestadult stories, this collection presents a moving and insightfulread.