The Forgotten and the Fantastical 4, Modern Fables and Ancient Tales, edited by Teika Bellamy, Mother’s Milk Books, 2018,
Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and other familiar figures appear in this anthology of fourteen stories, but not as we know them. Some of the stories consider how traditional motifs might work out in a modern setting; other stick to a traditional background but look at themes and archetypes from a 21st century perspective. The anthology displays a range of voices and styles, although certain themes and preoccupations emerge from the book as a whole.
Many traditional fairy tales are set in the woods but they take the natural world and its exploitation for granted. By contrast, these stories focus on the description of nature and the possibility of different kinds of relationships to the natural world. The Wild Man of the first story, by Rachel Rivett, is born in the sea, with ‘a punch of wave and a crash of light: a gasp of air and an explosion of sound…’. Alva, in The Moss Child by Lisa Fransson, speaks to the mountain stream and the trees, until a human gift weighs her down and she needs help to get free. One of the longer stories, Cold-Brained Kay by Rosemary Collins, is a reimagining of Hans Andersen’s Snow Queen. This provides a particularly thought-provoking contrast in attitudes. In the Andersen version, the cold of winter is to be feared and ice is a symbol of hard-hearted sterility. In the new story, the failure of winter brings trouble and Kay must seek out the cold to bring healing to the country.
This Kay is a girl, not a boy as in the original, and another noticeable theme in this anthology concerns the role of women. These are not stories in which women are dependent on men to rescue them and they do not assume that marriage is necessarily a happy ending to an adventure. Belle/Bete by Renee Anderson, is one of the stories with a modern setting. A young woman scarred by a fire, lives in a tower flat and shows us the difficulty of knowing who is the beauty, who the beast, in her life. In Sins of the Fathers by Lynden Wade, a man sets out to make an iron wife but the person he gets is not what he expects. Even more unusual is the protagonist of Juanita by Elizabeth Hopkinson. She is a 17th century prodigy of learning at the court of New Spain, in Mexico. She can speak both ancient Greek and Nahuatl but her yearning for forbidden books leads her into trouble with the Inquisition.
The inspirations for these stories are not limited to the best-known fairy tales but include Norse legend, medieval chronicles and contemporary folklore. The power of story-telling itself is at the heart of more than one tale, including Winging It by Matthew Keeley and A Story in Two Parts by Leslie Muzingo, which rounds off the book fittingly with a tale about the lives of the Brothers Grimm.
I was engaged by all the stories and some of them will linger in my mind. Other readers will have different favourites and pick out different elements. The notes by the authors supplement the stories by providing some insight into the writing process. The book is beautifully produced, with a dramatic cover picture by Emily Catherine and elegant black and white illustrations by Emma Howitt for each story.