Fairy Tales Switched by Gender
Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett
Faber, 20 GBP Hag:
Various Writers Virago, £ 12.999 Lost Folktales Retold Virago, £ 12.999
Susan Flockhart’s review
For decades, Cinderella, Aladdin, and their fairy tale relatives have been spreading magic. What can’t be liked in a world where beauty is synonymous with goodness, marriage is the pinnacle of female aspiration, and through layers of feather mattresses the inherent dominance of the aristocracy can be seen?
By today’s standards, quite a lot – which is why authors, filmmakers and pantomime screenwriters are gradually infusing contemporary ideals into these stories. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, in Nikita Gill’s Fierce Fairytales, subverts her normal delicate victim status by leading the wolf pack into an eco-battle against logging-mad loggers.
In Gender Switched Fairy Tales, Karrie Fransman and Jonathan Plackett, using a computer algorithm to turn him into her, son into daughter, and brave prince into equally brave princess, have taken the modification of narratives into the cyber era. So Jacqueline becomes the bean-climbing giant killer, and she’s an ambitious princess who hacks through brambles to wake the sleeping beauty with a lustful glance.
The book is a delight: beautifully illustrated and entertainingly embellished with clever inventions, such as the long golden beard of Mr. Rapunzel. But these tales are not completely funny, unlike the revived Handsome. The kind-hearted Skivvy, Cinder, looks “100 times” better than his filthy, tampering stepbrothers. Monarchs reign, and the redemption of the ill-fated merchant in Handsome and the Beast is to reclaim material riches, no doubt ill-gotten in the first place.
Instead of choosing texts from the 1889-1913 storybooks of Andrew Lang and leaving them “biases,” the writers state they purposely refrained from influencing the stories with their own “untouched except for the gender swap.”
Ironically, Lang’s books themselves were based on versions of traditional European stories previously written, many of which had been heavily revised by folklore collectors who had excised gruesome descriptions, converted murderous mothers into stepparents, and turned marauding rapists into charmingly romantic suitors.
Folklorists such as the Grimm brothers were arguably doing just what storytellers had always done by adapting these fairy tales for the book: adapting the tales to their audiences, often adding jokes or altering the plot to reflect current politics.
In Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold, Eimear McBride does just that. Originally created as a podcast, Hag presents 10 brand-new stories by female authors, each inspired by her part of the British Isles’ ancient story. And the narrator meanders eccentrically in McBride’s version of Ireland’s Tale of Kathleen, directs knowing asides at her audience, and represents the spirit of oral storytelling.
For their comparative lack of familiarity, the original stories were purposefully chosen, and while the Selkie myth – the catalyst for the tale of Kirsty Logan – feels familiarly Scottish to me, I had never heard of the others and enjoyed finding them in the appendix of the novel.
A tour de force of storytelling is Daisy Johnson’s witty and upsetting take on The Green Children of Woolpit. It starts as a kind of investigative inquiry into the historical origins of the plot, inspired by a medieval legend about two oddly colored siblings found weeping on the edge of a wolf pit in Suffolk. Then, subtly, magically, these elemental forces infect the narrator and gradually consume him.
Hag is teeming with mermaids, will-o’-the-wisps, and shape-shifters, but he also discusses the dreams, fears, and visceral terrors that in the human imagination gave rise to these creatures. It is not surprising, considering the dangers once associated with pregnancy and childbirth, that fertility has been a constant folklore theme, recurring here in Logan’s tale “Skye,” Emma Glass’s reinterpretation of “The Fairy Midwife” from Wales, and the atmospheric take on an old Yorkshire tale by Naomi Booth.
If there is a feminist note in these stories, it is not overt, but in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s version of Old Farmer Mole, a domestic abuser gets his comeuppance. But the old drunkard got his holy deserts even in the original Somerset tale.
Was it the ap that was