I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, haven’t I? Most recently, I’ve been going through the anthologies of retold folk and fairy tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. These are my favorite stories:
Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People. New York: Viking, 2010.
- “The Selkie Speaks,” by Delia Sherman. Sherman’s poem features a rare lasting marriage between a selkie and a human – and rarer still, a marriage not based on a stolen skin.
- “Bear’s Bride,” by Johanna Sinisalo. Trans. Liisa Rantalaiko. In an ancient Finnish tribe, the women who commune with bears gain power over animals. Now it is Kataya’s turn to spend several months shadowing a bear to strengthen her own tsirnika. This story reminded me of Jean Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, especially the way the tribe avoids the word “bear,” using terms like “Bruin” and “Honeypaws” instead.
A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2000.
- “The Months of Manhattan,” by Delia Sherman, is a retelling of “The Twelve Months.” While trying to complete a school assignment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Liz finds a painting of Rockefeller Center, with twelve people who come to life. Afterwards, it seems like luck is always on her side, and her stepsister Beth grows jealous.
- “The Kingdom of Melting Glances,” by Katherine Vaz. Based on two Portuguese folktales, this story is full of beautiful imagery. After Rosa’s parents melt out of love for each other, she’s left with her cruel sisters who taunt Rosa because of the lily-shaped mark on her face. When the sisters injure and frighten away her only friend, a hummingbird, Rosa seeks him in the moon’s face, on the wind’s path, and in the golden palace of the sun.
Swan Sister. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2003.
- “Awake,” by Tanith Lee. In Lee’s Sleeping Beauty tale, the thirteenth fairy’s spell is much more beautiful: “‘The Spinning Wheel of Time shall stop […] because this child, by then sixteen years old, shall grasp the Spindle that holds the thread time is always weaving. Then she shall gain a hundred years of freedom before she becomes only your daughter, and wife to the prince you approve for her.’”
- “Inventing Aladdin,” by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s poem muses on how Scheherazade came up with her stories each night.
She does not know where any tale waits
before it’s told. (No more do I.)
But forty thieves sounds good, so forty
thieves it is. She prays she’s bought another
clutch of days.
We save our lives in such unlikely ways.
Silver Birch, Blood Moon. New York: Avon Books, 1999.
This and several other Datlow/Windling anthologies are collections of adult fairy tales – stories “that remold our most cherished childhood fables into things darker and sexier, more resonant and appealing to grown-up tastes and sensibilities.”*
- “Precious,” by Nalo Hopkinson. At the end of “Diamonds and Toads,” the fortunate gem-tongued daughter is, of course, picked up by a prince and expected to live happily ever after. But her husband is only interested in her riches, and uses any means to force them out of her. But in the end, it’s she who has the final say.
- “The Sea Hag,” by Melissa Lee Shaw. Who is the sea witch, really, and why is she willing to grant the mermaids’ wishes, even the one that seems too foolish? All I can say without spoiling is that it’s a lovely retelling of “The Little Mermaid.”
- “The Shell Box,” by Karawynn Long. The story intro describes it as “a conflation of various Selkie and Roane stories, some ‘Bluebeard’ tales, with a bit of ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Lonely Merwen is enchanted by a stranger who pays her compliments, and when he asks her to marry him, she readily agrees. Then he turns sullen as his fishing expeditions prove unsuccessful, so Merwen gives him her voice in a special box to keep him company. Suddenly he’s bringing home excellent catches, and seems pleased with Merwen again. But how much has she given up to make him temporarily happy?
I would’ve liked those Selkie and Roane elements to be more explicit, but the hints made me happy enough.
- “Arabian Phoenix,” by India Edghill. What really happens to the wives of King Haroun al-Raschid, who only seem to last a week each before he’s single again? Shahrazad has a theory, and a plan for her own future. This is a clever twist on The Arabian Nights, set in modern times.
- “Marsh-Magic,” by Robin McKinley. For twenty generations, the kings named Rustafulus are counseled by their mages to marry a woman of the marsh people, who have their own magic that could bind the land together if they join with the king of the dry land. But the new wife of Rustafulus XX will discover a secret about this tradition, and will not let herself be used the way her predecessors were.
The story intro dubs this a tale inspired by “Rumpelstiltskin”…”But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘Marsh-Magic’ is based on ‘Rumpelstiltskin’,” says McKinley. “It’s more like one of the bigger turnips that went in the pot.”
* So says the front jacket flap for Black Thorn, White Rose. New York: Avon Books, 1994.