Sunday, July 25, 2010

Once Upon a Time: Classic Fairy Tale Retellings

Between Shrek and Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, fairy tale retellings might seem to be an invention of the turn of the millenium. But we can go clear back to the 1920s and 1940s for a quartet of early gems in the retelling corner of the children's fantasy treasury.

You've heard of Arthur Rackham, right? You may not have heard of Charles Seddon Evans, though. C.S. Evans wrote novel or rather novella-length versions of Cinderella in 1919 and Sleeping Beauty in 1920 to accompany Rackham's illustrations. Evans was actually an editor (and later Chairman and Managing Director) of the Heinemann publishing firm.

Evans's retellings might easily have fallen short of Rackham's masterful work, but they are surprisingly strong in their own right. The style is a little old-fashioned, but it's still a lot of fun. Here is an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty:

The first thing [the king] did was to summon all the magicians of his own and neighboring countries, promising a rich reward to the one who could show him a way to defeat the old fairy's malice. The magicians came in scores, some with long beards reaching to their feet, some without any beards at all, some with bald heads, and some with matted hair that looked as though it had not been combed for centuries. For days there were so many magicians about the palace that they were as common as cats, and it was impossible to enter any room without surprising one or the other of them, sitting in deep reflection and looking as wise as only a magician can look. But nothing came of their thinking, and one after the other they gave up the task and departed, having first asked for their traveling expenses.
The story of Sleeping Beauty needs a bit more padding than Cinderella does, so Evans is at his leisure to fill us in about things like the food on the menu at the christening feast. Alternatively droll and painterly, Evans gives us menu items such as "sardines from Sardinia" and "eagles carved of ice hovering over silver dishes filled with apricots." Evans has a knack for fleshing out this well-known story with just the right details, such as presenting the words of the proclamation banning spinning wheels from the kingdom.

All of this makes for a pleasant, leisurely retelling, more of a drawn-out version of the original rather than a true novelization. As for Rackham's illustrations, they are all done in silhouettes, which feels like a lost art form these days. Spreads showing the entire palace and various people in it are especially striking, as are a couple of rather terrifying illustrations of hapless princes trapped in the brambles and turning to skeletons.

We get a lot more description in Evans' Sleeping Beauty than is common in today's fast-paced work, but all of it is very pretty, and certain young readers will enjoy the detailed depiction of the palace—for example, when the hundred years have passed and the prince is making his way through the somnolent rooms. In such scenes, Evans captures Perrault's tone, then extends it.

Evans' Cinderella is arguably the better of the two books, perhaps because he has more plot to play with. Here is Cinderella's father describing the new stepsisters to his daughter, already sounding worried:
"One is called Charlotte," answered her father, and the other Euphronia."
"I like the name of Charlotte," said Ella miserably. "Are they big girls or little ones?"
"Well, you see," said her father, "correctly speaking, they are not girls at all. That is to say, child, they have—ahem—arrived at years of discretion. You must not expect them to play ball or anything like that, or run about the garden with you. They are—what shall we say?—a little sober in temperament; but excellent creatures, nonetheless—excellent creatures. You will get on very well together, I'm sure, with a little give and take on both sides."
"Just a minute, father," pleaded Ella. "Do tell me some more about my new sisters. I cannot understand all the big words you use. Do you mean that they are grown up?"
Her father nodded. "In point of fact, adult," he said, and his tone was so gloomy that Ella had to smile.

Together with Cinderella, we get to know the stepsisters all too well, adding weight to the injustice of her situation. Arthur Rackham's illustrations are again presented in black silhouettes, although he uses a little gray to add dimension to the grander scenes. Cinderella attends the ball for two nights running, allowing the story to build more suspensefully. It also makes the romance a bit more credible. Evans gives us an all-too-real concern from Cinderella herself after the second ball: "It is the Princess he loves... If he could see me now in these ragged clothes, or find me at my drudgery in the kitchen, would he recognize me? And even if he did know me again, would he be horrified to think that he had danced with a kitchen-maid?"

Fortunately, the prince is not so shallow as all that. "He felt sure that she must be in some trouble, otherwise she would not have run away from the ball so suddenly." He resolves to find her and help her. And he suspects she might have been the poorly dressed girl the guards saw running away.

One of my favorite parts of this book is that Rackham and Evans promenade the shoe-aspiring girls in batches. On one page, we are told, "First of all came the princesses," and we are shown two princesses in silhouette. The next page says, "and then the duchesses," with three duchesses shown below. "And then the countesses," six of them. "And so on to the plain gentlewomen," (ten women), "until it was the turn of the servants in the kitchen, but the slipper would not go on the foot of any of them" (twelve servant girls and a cat). That's in the palace, but of course we know the search will broaden its reach and lead us to "happily ever after."

The Rackham and Evans books are very nice, and I do recommend them; however, they have to step aside modestly when they see the next two books coming... Eleanor Farjeon's clever, whimsical, often-funny voice makes her Cinderella retelling, The Glass Slipper, and her Rumpelstiltskin retelling, The Silver Curlew, true classics.

Even if you think you've never heard of Eleanor Farjeon, you might know who she is—she wrote the poem "Morning Has Broken," which was set to music and performed by Cat Stevens. (She is also the author of a long and luxuriously fantastical story about jump ropes, elves, and sugar candy currently available in picture book format. Charlotte Voake is the illustrator of Farjeon's Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep.)

It's worth noting that in their early editions, Farjeon's two retellings are illustrated by another famous artist, Ernest H. Shepard of Winnie-the-Pooh fame.

Now, cynical modern readers might find The Glass Slipper—which was originally a play in 1944—too adorable to bear, but anyone who likes slightly old-fashioned, kinda girly books like Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess and The Secret Garden or Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes will be happy to discover this tale.

Ella is so very sweet, the Princess of Nowhere... She talks to the objects in the kitchen, and they answer. Her stepmother finds out that Ella has a little picture of her mother and uses it to keep her under control. Ella's bed in the kitchen is a sort of cupboard, so the stepmother locks her into it when the girl defies her. Here's an early encounter with Cinderella, who is wishing she could sleep in:
"Cockadoodledoo!" crowed the Rooster.
"Cockadoodledoo!" mocked Ella. "Well, I won't! Everybody orders me about, but you shan't!" And down she lay with her fingers in her ears. That seemed to finish the Rooster, and he didn't crow again. But now all round the kitchen went the funny little stir that meant the day had begun and the Things weren't being attended to. The tall clock in the corner seemed to be ticking a little more impressively than before, and Ella couldn't shut it out:

The Grandfather Clock
Agrees with the Cock!

And as it began to strike seven:

It's exceedingly wrong
To stay in bed long!

Ella sat up again with a little sigh. "All right Grandpa. I know. You never let me off, do you?"
"I never let anybody off," ticked the Clock.

As the Things stop fussing and Ella begins her day, her father sneaks in the kitchen door from outside, hoping for a quiet moment with his daughter before his wife catches him there. But of course, she does.

Some of this may sound a bit twee, but I have to tell you, the story unfolds so delightfully that it works. One touch I like is that Farjeon incorporates a fairy tale trope by having Cinderella help an old woman in the snowy woods. In return, the hungry girl finds a magical meal. Later the woman turns out to be her fairy grandmother.

We also get some giddily colorful characters at court, such as the king's fool (AKA the Zany) and a tenderhearted herald. Of course, Farjeon creates her own version of the dreadful and silly stepsisters:
"I'm not going to be a wallflower." The Sisters pranced about, practicing curtsies. "Nobody's not going to ask me to dance, so there!"
"Nobody's going to neglect me," said Arethusa.
"Nobody's going to reject me," said Araminta.
"I'm going to be the most beautiful bloom in the whole of the room, so there!"
"Excepting for me! People will pass the remark, 'She's just like a hothouse rose'—so there!"
Minta tossed her head. "If I don't get lots of introductions, look out for ructions!"
"If I don't get first prize for airs and graces," said Thusa, "I'll smack their great big ugly faces. I'm not going to be a wallflower.""
"No more am I not going to be a wallflower!"
"So there!" The Sisters flopped on the floor in a heap, with not a curtsy left between them.
Ella came timidly to the door. "The bath is ready, madam."
"Dip, dip, dip!" said the Stepmother.
The Sisters gathered themselves up, piled Ella's arms with towels and soap and sponges and perfume and rubber ducks, and pushed past her to the bathroom, where she had to scrub their backs for them. They were much too lazy to do it for themselves.

If The Glass Slipper is delightful, The Silver Curlew is strange and marvelous. It has a more modern sensibility than the retelling of Cinderella, almost an edge. And yet, that's a subtlety not everyone will notice. The most obvious and appealing thing about this book is its humor.

Here Farjeon combines the story of Rumpelstiltskin with a nursery rhyme about the man in the moon. Only in her version, Rumpelstiltskin (or rather Tom Tit Tot) has become a little black imp, clearly kin to devils and demons, while the miller's daughter is pretty Doll Codling, the laziest girl in all the land—but also a girl with a real knack for motherhood, when she gets the chance.

More important is Doll's younger sister Poll, who is wiry and adventurous and clever. She's the real hero of our story.

The tale's comic centerpiece is Nollekens, King of Norfolk, an overgrown child and towering sulker who clashes less-than-majestically with his new sister-in-law and nearly spoils the whole thing when it comes to naming names. His temper is a running joke that eventually offers up a tidy tidbit of a message, though not in a pompous way.

And who is Charlee, the daydreamy fisherman who wanders up and down the beach, followed by a parade of puffins? When Poll saves a beautiful silver bird from the imps of the Witching-Wood, it is Charlee who helps her figure out how to care for the injured bird. The curlew is even the subject of one of the quarrels between Poll and the king:
"I'm not featherbrained!" cried Poll, stamping her foot at him.
"You are featherbrained!" cried Noll, stamping his foot at her. "And no wonder, sitting over that silly bird of yours, morning, noon, and night. I've a good mind to have it banished."
"Don't you touch my bird! Don't you touch my bird!" squealed Poll.
"I wouldn't touch your bird with a pair of filigree sugar-tongs," said Noll.
"You haven't got a pair of filigree sugar-tongs."
"I shall have some made," said Nollekens, "especially not to touch your bird with. Nursing a sick curlew all the year round!"
"It's getting better," Poll declared.

Other passages are quietly poetic:

[Poll] unclosed her eyes, which felt a little sticky from being so fast-shut. At first the moonlight made everything swimmy and she could only see a sliding silver movement over the grass that seemed to be the wind made visible. Then as her eyes cleared Poll caught and held her breath. What did she see? She saw the Silver Curlew floating above the flower-beds like a large moth. It rose a little, dipped, rose a little higher, and slid to earth again. Poll watched its movements anxiously. It stepped through the dewy grass as though it were stepping through seaweed, and stopped beside the fountain to wet its bill. Refreshed, it began to try its wings again.

Soon the deadline for Doll's guessing the spinning creature's name comes calling, the adventure escalates, and Poll must slip into the Witching-Wood, disguised as an imp, in order to save her baby nephew.

Besides the characters, the humor, and the poet's masterful use of language, Eleanor Farjeon's greatest accomplishment is to make something new out of an old story. She even manages to twine another tale through it using a nursery rhyme. There's an artistry and a grace to The Silver Curlew that transforms it into a gift of a story for any young fantasy reader, even 50+ years after its initial publication.

While you can enjoy all kinds of fairy tale retellings in the 2000's, don't forget the earliest of these books. Sometimes they're the best of the bunch.


jama said...

Fab post, Kate. Learned a lot! *craving sardines from Sardinia* :)

Ruth Donnelly said...

Awesome post! As both a Streatfield and a Secret Garden fan, I will definitely check out The Glass Slipper. ;)

Just took a look at your website--it's beautiful!

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Jama and Ruth!

Jennifer said...

I've vaguely heard of Evans, although I don't think I ever actually read his retellings...but I love Farjeon's Glass Slipper. I spent several months reading every book of hers I could find years ago and they were lovely months indeed. Her Martin Pippin stories are delightful too.