It’s no secret I’m obsessed with fairy tales. Strangely enough, (until recently) I’d never read the Grimm brothers’ collection. I was in the bookstore intent on amending that offense to my English degree, when Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales caught my eye.
Angela Carter is famed for her feminist writing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – quite the opposite of the Grimm brothers’ notorious storytelling habit of blaming their women and letting their men off the hook. I decided to pick up both.
Carter’s fairy tales are a collection of over a hundred globally diverse, cunning, funny, and downright savage stories. Some made me laugh, or quirk an eyebrow, or quite suddenly, in one short paragraph, they broke my heart. Carter put these traditionally oral narratives onto paper with the goal of maintaining the presence of the people who told them.
Each story is written with such an incredibly distinct voice, or even accent, I sometimes had to read a line out loud to catch its meaning. And, encompassing stories from around the world, I can see how for each reader it might be a different story that stands out, raises their eyebrows, or makes them squeamish.
The thread tying all these stories together is the women they’re about. Unwittingly, these short tales spun for entertainment tell us our histories, and about the striking differences between us.
Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales celebrates those differences but also puts them into perspective. Because fairy tales have some bad habits. Namely, propagating imposing narratives about women. Carter does not try to hide or erase that, but she reminds us to read cautiously. In having these stories placed side by side, I was forced to acknowledge the gaps between one cultural expectation and another, and reminded to question narratives that might inflict confining roles. It’s certainly something I’m still confronted with, everyday and everywhere I turn.
But I found that more often, these are stories of women breaking free from those roles. In the end, each tale teaches us something invaluable about ourselves. And regardless of how, they are evidence of women’s retaliation to confining narratives, by simply creating their own.
When I was little, I would read to my sister from a book of fairytales, and one story, in particular, was our favorite. My sister would demand I tell the story of the clever girl Cap-O’-Rushes over and over, and I would happily comply. The damsel may have ended up with a prince, but she taught us that we could be clever, witty, take our own initiative and save our own asses on our way to a happily-ever-after we chose.
In Carter’s collection, there is no tale of “Cap-O’-Rushes” by that name, but, after all this time, her story returned to me under different titles, in altered guises, from all corners of the world.