A Curious Girl

The musings of a girl who is curious in both senses of the word. Life, God, and York. Oh, did I say York? I meant Bradford!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Obscure Reviews Inc: Favourite Fairy Tales Part 1

I like reviews. And recently I have read a book I doubt anyone reading this blog will ever be able to read (my parents have a copy, if anyone's interested, though). Thus I must warn you that this review contains spoilers, and is written mainly for my amusement.

My parents, being grandparents to two (three in October) have a stash of books and toys in the spare room. Since I'm sleeping there this weekend (it used to be my room after all), I've perused the book cases for my amusement, and since I possess a certain fondness for folk tales, decided to read "Favourite Fairy Tales" which was translated and adapted by Susanna Noel (it doesn't say from what) and illustrated by Paul Durand.

The Fairy Tales in question are The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, Puss in Boots, Little Donkey Skin, The Fairies and Little Red Riding Hood. And I read them all, except for Tom Thumb which I scanned because it was a bit too gory for me.

Sleeping Beauty is rendered mostly after the traditional style. There are a king and queen who struggle to have children for years and eventually have a daughter. This seems a fairly usual conceit of Sleeping Beauty and yet I'm not sure why it's necessary, given it has no bearing on what follows. Perhaps it's necessary for the daughter to be the heir, but, still, I am baffled.

There is also the "uninvited fairy" plot device - Noel emphasises that her lack of invitation was through an error, as the king believed her to be dead or cast under a spell (she is described as an "old fairy" which seems odd, I didn't think fairies were meant to age). The fairies all give gifts. I've always thought that the sort of gifts fairies give are profoundly ridiculous and these contain some gems. For example, the first fairy said that she would be the most beautiful baby in all the world, which seems rather pointless. In fact, I wonder if it was a cop-out because all mothers believe their babies are the most beautiful in the world. The second says she will have the spirit of an angel - I'm not entirely sure what that would entail - and whilst the third says her every action would be filled with grace, the fourth says she will dance beautifully, which seems like a given, if she's already very graceful. The fifth says she would have the voice of a nightingale, which is patently ridiculous, and finally the sixth says she would be able to play every kind of musical instrument, which for my money is probably the only decent gift of the bunch.

The old fairy then curses her with pricking her finger on a needle and dying. Yes, a needle. This is a bit bizarre, given the rest of the book - this entirely pointless dumbing down of the original tale. Later, when the young princess meets an old woman it says she is "sewing with a spindle". Very odd.

The end, unfortunately, does no real job of improving the original - rather boringly the princess falls in love with the prince at first sight.

Trembling, he went up to the bed and knelt beside it, and kissed her cheek. The princess stretched her arms, opened her eyes and smiled at him, her eyes tender with love.

'Is it you, my prince?' she asked
Enchanted by her words, the young prince declared his love for her and asked her to be his wife.

Which is just the sort of fairy tale rubbish I hate. I've always much preferred the stories where the heroine has to climb up glass mountains in iron shoes.

So the next story of our Favourite Fairy Tales is Cinderella. Another well-known fairy tale that's been turned into a much-loved Disney movie. There is a nobleman, who marries again, and the second wife has two ugly daughters. My mother used to tell me that the ugly sisters were really just ugly inside, but Noel's version makes short work of that presumption - their ugliness is mentioned repeatedly, and there is also a definite hint that they are fat too.

The sisters had not eaten for nearly three days so that they would be able to fit into their ball dresses, and even then Cinderella had to lace them into their corsets by pulling on the bedposts.
I'm not sure how that's meant to work, or why the sisters couldn't get dresses in their own size. Or, in fact, why given this little detail, they look very ordinary in the pictures. Perhaps that's the magic of corsets.

Cinderella's father is still alive in this version, but it is mentioned that he would have only scolded her anyway because he was entirely under her stepmother's thumb. Sigh, those women.

Cinderella watches the sisters go. She sits down and cries, when suddenly her beautiful fairy godmother appeared! Did I mention this book loves beauty? It's really no wonder Beauty and the Beast wasn't featured, the idea of good people not being beautiful hasn't occurred to Noel. It bothers me in this version, as it bothers me in every version of Cinderella, that the godmother only appears at this point. Gee, you'd think being starved in a garret and made a servant in your own home might warrant a bit of magical aid, but no, it's only when a party comes up that she feels she should pop in. To quote York University's PantSoc Cinderella, "You can give me a makeover but you can't solve any of my real problems? Have you ever considered a career in daytime television?"

So yes, the fairy godmother proceeds as per usual, giving Cinders all the lovely things and entreating her to be back by midnight. Cinders arrives at the ball and her beauty stops everything.

As they entered the violins stopped playing, the dancing came to a halt and everybody stopped talking, as they all stared in wonder at the beauty of this unknown princess! A murmur went through the crowd, 'Oh how lovely she is!' 'Did you ever see anyone so beautiful?' Even the king himself, old as he was, could not take his eyes off her and whispered to the queen, 'It's been years and years since I've seen anyone so pretty!'
Yeah, ok, we get it. I'm sure the queen is old enough and mature enough to not be irrationally jealous by this, but I sort of hope that the king followed this up with "Why, she's almost as beautiful as you" or similar. Chivalry's not dead, is it?

The prince, obviously, falls in love with her at first sight, and sits next to her in the banquet, passing her sweetmeats, which she, with admirable daring, passes on to her step-sisters. This apparently astonished them because they didn't recognise her. I imagine they might have been even more stunned if they had recognised her.

She goes home and asks her fairy godmother - who was apparently waiting - if she can go again the next night. It seems to me unlikely that even fairy-tale monarchs would hold balls every single day, but apparently this one does, because she goes the next night and forgets to leave at a quarter to twelve, instead leaving as the clock strikes, leaving the glass slipper on the steps. The sisters report after the ball that the prince had put it in his pocket. They said he kept kissing it all evening, and they were sure he was in love with the mysterious beauty. Whom he knows nothing about. But that part isn't really Noel's fault - it's the usual fairy tale crap.

Of course the story unfolds as per usual - the sisters did everything they could to force their big fat feet into the tiny little slipper... Ooh, did we mention the ugly sisters are also fat? But luckily there is a chance for their redemption, as, when they discover she was indeed the beautiful princess, beg for forgiveness and Cinderella tells them she will always love them. She then (because she was as good as she was beautiful) invites her sisters to live in the palace with her and they marry two noblemen.

I'm actually all in favour for adapting fairy tales - I certainly like to do it all the time - but I'm not sure this really hits the right spot. I mean, isn't it awfully convenient that the sisters hate Cinderella while their mother forces her to be a servant, but suddenly want forgiveness just as soon as she earns her riches? It seems odd that the story about Cinderella ends up being about the two sisters - which makes me wonder whether Noel rather felt sorry for them. Her incarnation of them does make them rather petty, vain characters.

And I think this is one of the problems of this book - Noel is pressed with the task of infusing life into well-worn old stories. There are some nice touches, like the sweetmeats (later revealed to be candied oranges) and the fact that the sisters make fun of Cinderella whilst gossiping all their secrets. One suspects maybe they might have been friends, were it not for the mother's influence. But on the other hand, Noel has named this book "Favourite Fairy Tales", and we're expecting Cinderella, which is a fairy tale, not some gritty family drama.

Anyway, on to the next story, which is Tom Thumb. This story confused me because I was sure I remembered Tom Thumb being vastly different to the story in the book, although I think I had it confused with Thumbelina, another story about a thumb-sized individual. The story opens with a woodcutter, his wife, and seven boys between the ages of 7 and 10 (the woodcutter's wife always seemed to have two babies at once is the sole explanation for this). They are poor and their youngest child causes them grief because he doesn't say a word, but is actually the wisest of the brothers. Noel notes because he didn't say anything he had plenty of time to listen and learn.

I can just imagine a parent of a particularly talkative child saying that last a little too loudly and clearly... In any case, for some reason this very small, silent child is still the bane of their life. I am not sure why, but perhaps young Tom was born prematurely (he was the size of a man's thumb, after all) and perhaps nowadays we would say he is disabled or autistic. The Golden Goose has a similar theme, with the youngest brother being disliked and called "Simpleton" but ending up with all the riches. Perhaps there was some element of disability rights in ye olde days, though only for the boys.

The family are very poor, and the parents decide to abandon their children in the woods. Hansel, I mean Tom, is very clever and collects white pebbles, which he scatters behind them to guide them home again, and then they get abandoned again, and Hansel, I mean Tom, scatters breadcrumbs, which get eaten by the birds, so they're lost.

I can't help but think that it was actually a pretty stupid plan all round, however. The woodcutter abandons his children in dense forest so they can't come home? How on earth did he find his own way home then? Silly. And Tom, despite apparently never talking, does choose this most opportune moment to say "Don't worry, brothers! Father and mother have left us here, but I know how to get us back home. Follow me!" and with not a word of how astonished his brothers must have been. Why did you never speak before? I never had anything I needed to say...

Of course, I mustn't miss the charming interlude where the mother frets and the father gets impatient and threatens to beat her. Honestly, leaving out spindles but including threats of domestic violence? Is this book really meant to be suitable for children?

After various perils, including wolves who threaten to eat them up but somehow don't get around to it, the boys find a house on the edge of the forest. A woman with a good-natured face opens the door and explains that this is the home of a wicked ogre who eats children for breakfast. Tom asks if they might stay, as the wolves in the forest would certainly eat them up otherwise, although they're not in the forest anymore, apparently. Tom (talkative little kid, now) suggests the the ogre might take pity on them. So the ogre's wife (some women really don't marry well) takes them in, and then the ogre returns.

And the ogre says, "Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum..." Oh, no he doesn't. But he does notice a smell of raw meat, and finds the boys, hiding under the bed, and although they all beg for their life, he tells his wife to make the gravy. She points out that it's a little late for a dinner party, and persuades him to wait until the morning.

OK, I'm going to be brave and read the story properly now. If I have nightmares, I'm blaming Susanna Noel. Might have to leave the light on tonight...

All right, back now. So, the ogre's wife puts Tom and the boys to bed (the same bed
- they did that in the olden days) in one room. But the ogre has seven daughters who all sleep in the same bed (a different bed) too. They all sleep with crowns on their heads (they didn't tend to do that in the olden days). Tom, not wanting to be eaten in the night, switches the brothers' nightcaps (I don't know where they got nightcaps from) with the daughters' crowns. I must mention at this point that the daughters are, of course, implied to be ugly.

They all had wonderful complexions because, like their father, they ate a lot of raw meat, but they had little round eyes and crooked noses, and huge mouths with sharp, pointed teeth.

Both some dodgy dietary advice and what seems like some gratuitous ugliness. Though I suppose if they were beautiful, what happens next would seem terribly sad.

Yes, the ogre is peckish in the middle of the night. And he gets his big knife out and slices his daughters to pieces.


I mean, I know we can't blame Tom for not wanting to be eaten, also the ogre is pretty stupid to not recognise his own daughters, also the ogre shouldn't be chopping up small children anyway, but in all seriousness, given that Noel says Tom and the brothers run away while it is still the middle of the night, facing ravenous wolves anyway, was the hat-switching trick really necessary?

I know I'm probably being melodramatic, because most fairy tales are somewhat bloodthirsty - the original Cinderella had the ugly sisters chopping off bits of their big fat feet so they would fit in the shoes. Snow White made her stepmother dance in hot iron shoes (regrettably no glass mountains involved though). But it seems weird that in a book where the ugly sisters are redeemed, the hero of another tale is allowed to cause an ogre to kill his own children. It stops short of his actually eating them, although mainly this is so that Mrs Ogre can faint at the sight of them the next day.

Ogre is certainly rather angry in the morning. He fetches the seven-league boots, and catches up with the boys, who apparently ran seven leagues through dense forest in the night. I know, I'm a pedant, but seriously, it seems unlikely, particularly as they've barely eaten. At this point they've managed to find their way very nearly back home, but they see the ogre leaping from mountain to mountain and crossing rivers in a single bound and Tom hides them all under a rock.

And it all ends happily, for Tom at least, because the ogre falls asleep, Tom nicks the boots, and goes back to Mrs Ogre, telling her that her husband has been taken captive by thieves who will kill him unless they get all his silver and gold. The wife, who is clearly extremely gullible, gives Tom all their riches, and he goes home to his parents and brothers, who never go hungry again. It is really rather like Jack and the Beanstalk, but with some extra devious twists. I'll leave it to you to decide which you prefer...

The review (and general snarking!) will continue in Part 2.

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