I have been thinking lately about fairy tales.
I blame Robin McKinley, mostly, who is one of the writers that I would like to be like, even though our particular writing styles are not all that similiar. (They were moreso when I was younger, and not so snide, I grant you–these days everybody always brings up Pratchett, which believe me, I am not complaining about!) She does retoolings of fairy tales, sometimes, and she generally does them quite well.
If I was going to retell any fairy tale of my choice, there’d be no question. It’d be Bluebeard, or some variation thereof. That’s the one. People talk about one particular fairy tale striking them, or speaking to them, and Bluebeard’s the one that makes me understand that. Some of the others have a lot of meat on them, there’s something you could get your teeth into and make a good story out of, there’s something important there at the bottom of it–but Bluebeard goes right through me like a lightning bolt riding a cheap enchilada.
And this is sort of odd because I have never had anything remotely like that the events of the story happen to me, not even allegorically. If asked which is more likely to keep a room full of dismembered ex-wives in the basement, me or James, most of our friends would probably point immediately to me. (Besides, as I told a friend t’other day, if James ever does decide to become an axe murderer, I’ll have plenty of warning, as he’ll spend at least a month carefully consulting websites about proper axe technique, the best hatchet for the money, and guides on How To Mod Your Abattoir. I’m not too worried.)
Bluebeard, though…I dunno. There’s something there that twinges in my brain. Particularly one of the variants of the type–“The Robber Bridegroom” or “Mr. Fox,” which omits the bit about the hidden chamber and the curiosity, and focuses primarily on the heroine’s discovery that holy crap, this guy’s killin’ people in the basement! Dude! Not cool!
If I look at the work I’m proudest of–Digger, and “Irrational Fears,” and to a lesser extent “Black Dogs” the heroine always fits the same basic mold–the pragmatist in the world gone mad. Maybe that’s why this variant appeals to me. In so many fairy tales, the hero or heroine is just as weird as the rest of the world. They never seem to stand up and go “For the love of God! Am I the only one who thinks this is batshit insane?!”* Nope, they always take the whole thing at face value–climb the glass mountain on the talking steed with diamond hooves to pluck the leaf from the Tree at the End of the World or whatever.
Me, I wouldn’t get nearly that far. As soon as the steed started talking, the adventure would be over. I’d be too busy asking what it was like to be an enchanted horse, and what was enchanted horse culture like? really? and hey, how do you trim those diamond hooves, anyway? Do you need to find a farrier who specializes in lapidary work? Doesn’t that hurt?
And they never seem to ask the right questions, or to pack appropriately. If you’re fleeing the kingdom of your psychotic father, wearing an uncured donkeyskin, don’t bring a chest full of pretty dresses. Cash and a Swiss army knife will get you a lot farther.
It’s not that I’m not a fan of the wondrous and absurd, because absolutely I am. I doubt anybody could go through my art and suspect otherwise. But if the world is crazy, the people shouldn’t be. If that makes any sense.
In “The Robber Bridegroom” story, though, the heroine acts like a fairly intelligent human being. There aren’t many wonders to casually take in stride, just one basic horror, and far from going “Oh, well, he’s a cannibal, that’s upsetting but let’s get married anyway,” she says “Holy crap on a stick, I am OUT of here, and I’m taking the evidence with me!”
Maybe it’s not the story at all, I just recognize that heroine.
The Robber Bridegroom
*The Arabian Nights often seem to be better about this. You get the impression that they find the whole thing desperately weird, but they’re not saying anything out of machismo, lust, and greed, rather than finding it normal. And when somebody’s son wants to marry a tortoise, they don’t smile and nod–
“But it would be a monstrous thing for a human being to wed with a tortoise!” cried the sultan.
“I have no predilection for tortoises in general,” cried the prince. “It is this particular one whom I wish to marry.”
(I love that line.)