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Monday, June 11, 2007

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall


Bernheimer, Kate, ed. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales. The last of Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge? No, I think I'll be continuing to look for books that fit into at least one of Carl's "quests." This book of essays by such writers as Ursula Le Guin, Julia Alvarez, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Midori Snyder, and Terry Windling offer memories and discoveries involving the dramatic effect of fairy tales on the lives of women writers. By the way, we are not talking of the Disney versions of fairy tales, but the older, gorier versions eventually collected and recorded by the likes of the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. These darker versions have fueled many writers, both men and women, in a way that the sanitized, pastel Disney versions could never achieve.

Here is what I learned (and perhaps, what I already knew) -- fairy tales have some universal meanings, some psychological interpretations, and obviously, literary significance, and these aspects alone are fascinating, but they are far less important than the circumstances and personalities of the young girls who read them and the emotional impact of the fairy tales on their sensibilities. Each essay is dramatically colored by the events, family members, and circumstances of the essay's author. Timing also carries weight and adolescence and pre-adolescence seems to be a factor in the likelihood of the fairy tale burrowing into the author's heart and mind, creating an alternate reality and a kind of yeast that eventually helps initiate a new creativity.

Maybe I'm reaching here, but it seems that an unusually large number of these writers had childhoods that were far below any version of "the happy family." It makes me wonder what we have lost by cleaning up and prettifying fairy tales to the point that they can no longer perform a service for those children who are unhappy, neglected, abused, and misunderstood. The fairy tales seem to have provided a remarkable support system for many of these women and to have bestowed a method of coping, a fertile imagination, and a kind of inspiration as well.

Some approaches are largely analytical, some interpretative, some literary, some...almost entirely personal, but each one is an education and a treasure. I was going to try and list my favorites, but that proved too difficult. I will mention my enjoyment of Linda Gray Sexton's essay because her mother, the poet Ann Sexton, had such a brilliant and shadowed life suffering as she did with manic depression. The fairy tale influence cast its sway over both mother and daughter in interesting ways.

An excellent read and well worth reading again.

Non-fiction. Essays on fairy tales. 1998. 358 pages.

11 comments:

  1. I have this book on my wishlist. I am more inclined to get it hearing a positive review of it!

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  2. Wow, this book sounds amazing! I'm particularly interested in fairy tales (finishing my Master's thesis on fairy tales and comics), and before all that academic stuff, I was just a huge fairy tale fanatic.

    Andi

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  3. Oooh, this sounds good - off to add it to my wishlist!

    By the way, have you read Jane Yolen's Briar Rose?

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  4. Kailana - I really enjoyed it!

    Andi - Wow, what a combination! I'd love to hear more about this. Have you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon?

    lesley - No, but it is on my wish list. I've seen it mentioned every time I read about fairy tales. Need to move it up to the top of the que. :)

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  5. "It makes me wonder what we have lost by cleaning up and prettifying fairy tales to the point that they can no longer perform a service for those children who are unhappy, neglected, abused, and misunderstood."

    An excellent question. I really need to get this book. I love fairy tales, and I'd love to know what some of my favourite authors have to say about them. Thanks for this great review.

    PS: Briar Rose is wonderful. Do read it when you have the chance.

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  6. This sounds like a good book. I haven't done as well on this challenge as I would have liked to, but I still read a few books that I might not have otherwise. I will have to read more in this area.

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  7. What a great post! *Sigh* Another book I have to add to my reading list! I do think there is a lot of significance to fairy tales.

    I haven't finished the challenge either. But it was fun trying!

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  8. Sounds like a great book. Does this mean you've completed the challenge?

    "It makes me wonder what we have lost by cleaning up and prettifying fairy tales to the point that they can no longer perform a service for those children who are unhappy, neglected, abused, and misunderstood." Great thought. We have indeed lost something, but I think the awareness of the fact that these tales have an original form and the 'rediscovering' of these is going some way towards restoring this kind of tale to public awareness. And that is a good thing.

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  9. Nymeth - I think you would enjoy it, and yes, I do have to get to Briar Rose soon!

    Danielle - I read some books that I wouldn't have otherwise, too.!

    Stephanie - Mirror, Mirror was informative in many ways, especially if you like any of the authors who contributed.

    Carl - All said and all done! Great experience, Carl!

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  10. Nice review. Another book being added to the list. It will be interesting to read about these authors and the impact of fairy tales in their lives. I have a borther-in-law who forbade his children to read fairytales and fantasy. I felt like he was doing his children a grave injustice.

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  11. Fantastic review! I'm ready to run out and get this one. :-)

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