Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fairytale Reflections (20) Ellen Renner at SMoST

Fairytale Reflections (20) Ellen Renner was posted two weeks ago at SMoST (I am so behind!) but was another favorite of mine from the series. Renner is a more recently published author, so she only has a few books to her name so far, although I don't doubt more will come. According to SMoST's Langrish:

Ellen's first book, ‘Castle of Shadows’ (2010) is set in an alternate world similar to nineteenth century England, in a city not unlike London. Young Charlie (Charlotte) is the Princess of Quale. Years ago her mother the Queen – a notable scientist – mysteriously vanished. Her eccentric father the King spends all his time building ever more elaborate card-castles. Neglected and hungry, bullied by the housekeeper, Charlie runs wild and scrambles at will over the roofs of the castle, her only friend the gardener’s boy, Toby – until the day when the suavely intelligent Prime Minister, Alistair Windlass, begins to take an interest in her. But is he a true friend, or does he have some other motive for turning Charlie back into an educated, well-dressed, 'proper' princess?
Renner sounds like fun, too, having achieved some of those wishlists so many of fantasy lovers us would like to (or have) accomplished just for the sake of doing and knowing, like fencing and weaving.

But for the sake of SurLaLune's purpose, I will highlight Renner's wonderful essay, "HELPERS, HEROINES AND HAGS" that appears in the post. Renner discusses what makes a "girly" story and her run-in with a school kid who was reluctant to read what he perceived as a "girly" book. Ah, nothing like a school visit to keep you on your toes. Those kids will come out of the blue with so much.

Since this is an issue that has haunted me for years--especially as a librarian--I enjoyed reading her experience with it as an author. SurLaLune gets this issue on occasion, too, when I get requests for fairy tale fiction for boys to read. I even made a list Fairy Tale Books for Boys years ago that I need to update. Never fear, I made a Fairy Tales for Girls and Women, too, although it is less fiction and more anthologies of tales.

But back to Renner's essay, she discusses a few wonderful fairy tales, such as Molly Whuppie and The Master-Maid, and Baba Yaga. Here's an excerpt:

I read mythology, folk lore and fairy-tales voraciously, yet certain tales felt inappropriate and even irritating long before I was capable of analysing why that might be. They annoyed me in the same way Barbie dolls did. These were the stories featuring passive girls, usually born or destined to become princesses, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Girls whose physical attractiveness was the sum of their identity; girls who were not so much protagonists as prizes.

I yearned for heroines I could identify with and aspire to be like. Girls who DID things. Who underwent hardship and suffering and overcame the odds by use of their own wit or courage. And I found Gerta in Andersen's The Snow Queen and the brave sister in the Grimms tale, The Six Swans. I found Gretel in Hansel and Gretel; Janet in Tam Lin; and the redoubtable, spendidly named Molly Whuppie – the female Jack who bests her giant. Molly may marry and disappear into 'happy-ever-after', but you know she will go on dominating life just the same.

I had a more complicated reaction, no doubt because of the darker themes of forced marriage and the bestial interpretation of male sexuality, to tales such as Mossy Coat, The Black Bull of Norroway, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, but I still admired the courage and cleverness of the heroines. In these tales, a young woman is forced to perform nearly impossible tasks in order to recover a lost fiancé or husband, and sometimes their children. She succeeds with the help of magical advisers and gifts.
So do click through to read it all!
Two books by Ellen Renner with different covers:

Castle of Shadows Castle of Shadows City of ThievesCity of Thieves

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