If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Fairy Tales, Part III: Sleeping Beauty

I've read two revisionist versions of Sleeping Beauty in the past month. The first, Briar Rose by Jane Yolen, follows a young woman's journey to uncover her recently deceased grandmother's true life story. Her grandmother, who emigrated from Poland to the United States in the middle of World War II, was obsessed with the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Throughout the novel we get the grandmother's own retelling of the fairy tale (a far more dark and sinister telling than most children receive) woven into the story of the young woman's journey. By the end of the novel the grandmother's retelling gets reconciled with her true story and we see how fairy tales (and I would add myths here) help us make sense of the incomprehensible and shape our lives. It is a beautifully told tale and I highly recommend it.

The second novel, Beauty by Sheri Tepper, begins with a more conventional approach to fairy tales. The novel is told through the diary entries of the real Sleeping Beauty. It begins in the 1300s but takes us to current day--well the 1990s--and into the dismal future. This novel is a more traditional fairy tale in that magic exists (although it is dying in the future) and we enter the world of fairies. Beauty, in her romps through time and enchantment, tackles issues of environmental genocide, male brutality, women's rights, and aging. Much of the story comes down to a battle of good and evil--we get glimpses of both heaven and hell--and the differences and similarities between magic and religion. Tepper tells us before the novel begins that Beauty is a metaphor for the earth and the novel describes our current destructive path--the killing of beauty--while leaving open the hope of change and resurrection.

I've now read three novels of Tepper and I really enjoy her work. As I may have mentioned before, she is not a subtle writer. She tackles big issues and her interests frequently overlap with my own. She also explores interesting ideas and questions through quirky plots. I enjoy a quirky plot. However I generally prefer a softer touch. Take for example the following passage:
We have been thwarted at every turn by god. Not the real God. A false one which has been set up by man to expedite his destruction of the earth. He is the gobble-god who bids fair to swallow everything in the name of a totally selfish humanity. His ten commandments are me first (let me live as I please), humans first (let all other things die for my benefit), sperm first (no birth control), birth first (no abortions), males first (no women's rights), my culture/tribe/language/religion first (separatism/terrorism), my race first (no human rights), my politics first (lousy liberals/rotten reactionaries), my country first (wave the flag, the flag, the flag), and, above all, profit first.
Lack of subtlety aside, I enjoy her novels and I find the woman to be very interesting. Tepper, who turned eighty earlier this week, is a prolific author. She has published poetry, sci fi and fantasy as well as written horror and mysteries under pseudonyms. Her latest novel, The Margarets, came out in 2007 and it looks like she has another book coming out in 2011. Tepper married and divorced young and then raised two children as a single parent in the 1950s--when that just was not done. She remarried in the 1960s but continued to work for a variety of non-profits including a 24 year stint with Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood, where she eventually became the executive director. She has a history of advocacy--or as she phrased it "a person who wagged her finger under people's chins and said 'Now see here!'" She became a full-time author in the 1980s and currently operates a guest ranch in New Mexico. She's my kind of woman.


drax said...

In the past I have been guilty of dismissing Tepper out of hand; you have offered a swaying discourse that perhaps I should take my hand from my pocket and give Ms Tepper another chance. And Yolen? Well (bleep), everybody knows she's brilliant. (Yo, GOD. Yeah, you. I need at least a 26 hour rotation down here. Think you can swing that without putting Fuji underwater?)

Annie K said...

My favorite Sheri Tepper books are: Raising the Stones, Grass, The Awakeners, A Plague of Angels, Sideshow, and Shadow's End, all books I own. I'm afraid I'd have to re-read them to find out why, but what I remember is vivid description, feminist sensibilities, and unique sci-fi/fantasy concepts I've never encountered before or since, including convincing characterization of alien beings (and I'm not a SciFi fan), and human/alien relationships.

I'm enjoying your series on fairy tales. Thanks for writing them.

human said...

If you want more, you might try "The Gates of Sleep" by Mercedes Lackey. Though it is by no means the best of her fairytale retellings (I quite like Fire and Ashes, the Cinderella one, and The Serpent's Shadow, the Snow White one) it's still pretty decent and Lackey's feminism tends to be very present in her work without being preachy at all. I like that a lot.

Julie said...

Very interesting! I have enjoyed Yolen's work, too. You have also reminded me of a fairy tale from my childhood called "Like Meat Loves Salt." It was sort of a combination Cinderella/King Lear story. The version I knew was a Southern US "bayou" tale. But a Jewish version came first, and I'm sure it is in many other countries, too.

I'll be up all night now looking for that story online...ha! Sorry to go off topic, but this is such a fascinating subject. Thank you!

Annie K said...

Hi Brigindo, I referenced your series of fairy tales articles on my blog, and I've posted about a number of fairy tale, myth, and folklore research sites I've recently come across, that I think you and your readers will appreciate. Will there be a Fairy Tales, Part 4?

Danielle said...

I stumbled upon this exhibition that's at a museum in London. It's a re-telling or showing of fairy tale elements. These are much more sinister than the fairy tale elements I remember. I wasn't even aware that original fairy tales are much more horrid. You've got me interested. Also hope to read Beauty soon.