If you’re scratching your head wondering, “Um, where’s part two of that soul-opening spec-fic thing she was gonna do?”—yes, yes, sorry. I was supposed to continue with that today. However, I’ve not written something that satisfies me enough to post with delight and confidence, so I have to defer the next installments until after NANO. I plan to be on automatic pilot for the next month. I will resume the very difficult subject of the quest to write soul-opening spec-fic in December. I hope that also gives time for some more people to weigh in. The discussion on it was not as muscular as I had hoped. And I do prefer to have more input.
So, with an apology for postponing that until a later date, I hope that today’s subject does not disappoint. I happen to believe this is one legitimate way to write soul-opening speculative fiction. So, really, it’s not that far afield.
(It’s also possible I’ll get guest posters for November. I’m assuming I’ll be Nano-Brain-Fried. If you’ve been itching to post on a particular topic here at Speculative Faith, but have been afraid to ask, ask me. I don’t bite.)
Now, this day’s topic: How To Bring Myths and Fairy Tales Back From The Dead And Into The Light, Part One.
I have to give Veronica Schanoes credit for inspiring that title. I thank her and Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling and Tanith Lee for the work they’ve done in the last 20+ years, work that awakened me tot he power of the retold tale of wonder. (Fairy tales are sometimes referred to as wonder tales, since fairies are not often actually part of said tales.)
Stylistically, I will be using quotes from Schanoes’ exquisite, allusive, poetic story titled “How To Bring Someone Back Fromthe Dead.” The link takes you to its glorious entirety in the Autumn 2004 edition of the high-quality Journal of the Mythic Arts. I will also refer to one of my favorite fairytale/wonder tale retellings, a Snow White transformed by Tanith Lee called “Red As Blood.” (If you do not own a copy of RED AS BLOOD: TALES FROM THE SISTERS GRIMMER, then you need to eBay or amazon.com or google yourself up a copy ASAP. Brilliant.)
And so we begin:
“It hurts tocome back from the dead. And it hurts to bring someone back from the dead.”
Myths and fairy tales are meant to be repeated, told often, told again. The lesson is always there to be learned. A caution against laziness or vanity or transgressing the laws of divinity or king.. An insight into dark human dealings. A lament over dysfunctional families and the strength needed to overcome early tragedy. A goad to the straggler to continue the quest for identity and truth and rewards. A comfort to the poor and unwanted who dream of being somebody: a beauty hidden in an ash heap, a cloaked princess laboring as a scullery maid, a longsuffering soldier disguised as a filthy vagabond.
Fairy tales are ripe for reconstruction. Those of us who love speculative fiction would be foolish not to mine the riches of this mountain. Fairy tales let you explore morality without hip sarcasm. You can be earnest, and yet not seem preachy or sappy, because the tales already come loaded with right and wrong. Here’s a place that lets you have a moral and have it unabashedly. Do you want a romantic, happy ending—this is your kingdom. Do you want to explore the fight of the good against the wicked, of men against demons and devils, of the wise versus the foolish: This ground gives birth to such stories.
But whatever is often told and told and told the same way becomes a tad stale, loses some color, loses some life—at least until a new generation is born and grows old enough to hear them with fresh ears. So, let’s bring them back from the dead. It’s hard work. It may hurt. But Christians believe in the value of resurrection, and more, in the necessity of it. Things ache to live again. Stories do, too
“The woods will be the only real place. That is why you must bring bright colors with you-dressing all in black is a mistake. . . . Do not let the person you want to bring back drink your blood…. She is young and she has cherry-red lips and hair black as the raven’s wing.”
If, when, you read Schanoes story, you will bump against one allusion to myth and fairy tale after another. They come at you fast and strong, bright feathers flapping. Above she mentions the woods. (The play by Sondheim may come to mind: INTO THE WOODS.)
Why is the “woods” the only real place?
Because things that speak of mortal and eternal truths dwell there, and have dwelt there for millenia, and tales that teach the most important lessons wander there, along with Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Bearskin, the Devil, Pan, Diana the Huntress, centaurs and trolls. The Green Man peers out of the oldest trees in the woods. Nymphs and fairies gambol among the wildflowers. Elves build cities there, and men seek them out. Owls speak and the moon takes a nap in the branches. Unicorns ride and dwarves traipse to their mines in there, whistling, on the way to work. Princesses get lost there,only to be found and fed. The Months of the Year drink wine and tell stories there.
Woods can be friendly or menacing, nurturing or destructive. Everything is vivid and everything matters in the woods.
Now, how can you bring the stories once more to life, clothing them brightly for a new generation with the all the colors of the living God who hangs a rainbow in the sky for a sign?
You have to go as deep as you dare into the woods of these tales. There you find a character that no one noticed before hiding and watching Rapunzel…for what reason? And who is Rapunzel, anyway? Why does her hair grow that long? Why does a witch care for her and isolate her? What the heck kind of hair products does she use?
There you find a villain with secrets and deeds with consequences? Why does the Devil want that soldier’s soul more than anyone else’s? Why does he hide his gold in the forest in that tree? Why is picking a rose such a dangerous thing for a merchant? Why was that Beast Prince so cruel? Why were the stepsisters so greedy and mean? Why are the fathers so dang stupid? Or were they? Were they cunning and egotistical and covering it up with sham affection? Was Beauty a clever plotter and her stepsisters maligned? Was the Beast a pervert punished for bestiality? Were the flowers plucked murder, because each flower was actually an unborn child’s soul?
The woodsman’s magic axe says, “Ask questions. Ask questions you’re afraid to ask. Only then will you get answers that matter.”
There you find a quest or a conflict or a fear or a love. There you find the truth that begs to be dug up. Don’t tell the tale in the tired old way. God says a sing a new song. I say write a new tale of the woods and the woodsmen.
Take Snow White. Or rather, take Tanith Lee’s take on her in “Red As Blood”:
“Speculum, speculum,” said the Witch Queen to the magic mirror. “Dei gratia.”
“Volente Deo, Audio.”
“Mirror,” said the Witch Queen. “Whom do you see?”
“I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all in the land, but one.”
The mirror does not see Bianca (meaning white), because this version of Snow White is not a lovely, innocent, good, witch-hounded princess, but rather a vampiress.And vampires don’t have reflections in mirrors, right? So a central item in the familiar Snow White tale—the mirror that only sees Snow White—is now a mirror that doesn’t see her at all. Total turnaround. Her pale skin, black hair, and red lips fit the Goth-Vamp ideal. Her lips are red because she drinks blood. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin shows the consummate palor of the undead.
Snow isn’t the only one transformed in the retelling: The seven dwarves become seven black, gnarled, enchanted trees that do her malevolent bidding. The witch queen is a good witch who goes to church and reads the Bible and tries to bring Snow White into the faith of Christ to save her from her curse.
And even the prince who is Snow White’s true love changes, becomes the Ultimate Prince, the one who not only gives literal life to the beloved, but transforms the vampires to a thing no longer black with sin, no longer red with blood-thirst, but totally white. Christ rides in and changes Bianca first to a pure dove—white, and only white—a dove that flies back in time and across thewoods, back to the palace, back to her childhood, back to the good Stepmother (another turn of convention) who hangs a gold cross about Bianca’s young neck. She gets a second chance. The whole kingdom does. And so it ends with the Witch Queen asking the mirror whom he sees:
“I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all the land. I see Bianca.”
I get very moved by that redemptive ending and that beautiful last line.
Look, you, yourself. Look closely at Cinderella and at Beauty with her Beast and at the Little Mermaid and Rumpelstiltskin and the Seven Swans with the eyes of faith and full of godly truth, what do you see in those stories? What gaps need to be filled? What elements can be changed to retell it with more depth, more characterization? How can these characters be given a faith dimension and not just a “moral”one? How can redemption line up more closely with the redemption that involves blood, thorns, lashes, spears, sacrifice, death, resurrection, return?
You don’t have to have a Christ, but Lee’s story shows you can, if you do it well. And, okay, if you do it first. Fairy tales have good princes and handsome bridegrooms, and Christ isthe Bridegroom and the Prince of Peace. How can you make our truth work in the forest of myth and the woods of wonder tales without being trite or tired or flat?
Go into the woods, Christian, and rearrange the burrows and copses. Paint the wildflowers in new colors. Teach a new song to the birds and put wiser advice in the mouth of the owl. Change the owl to something else. A girl become owl. A boy become wind. A mother become the moon or the sun or the water in the well. And ask why? Why must this be so? What truth makes it so? Give the wolves new names. Face off with the witch in a way no one expects. Redeem the stepmother and the witch.
Go into the woods.
NextWeek: Part Two of How To Bring Myths and Fairy Tales Back From The Dead And Into The Light:
“Perhaps you will have to make your way through thorns and brambles.
Perhaps the thorns will take out your eyes and you will not see anything at all. “