October 17, 2013
(++++) FAIRLY, TALES
The Woodcutter Sisters, Book II: Hero. By Alethea Kontis. Harcourt. $17.99.
The Adventures of Gremlin. By DuPre Jones. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Pomegranate. $17.95.
Recent decades have brought a substantial upsurge in consideration and reconsideration of fairy tales as stories for adults – which is what they were for centuries, before Victorian and post-Victorian sanitization. From Freudian interpretations to feminist critiques, the venerable oral histories and stories of wonder have been viewed, re-viewed and done to a turn to serve a bewildering variety of academic and sociopolitical agendas. One result has been the creation of all-new fairy tales that incorporate, accessorize, mock, expand or otherwise play upon the old ones of Perrault and the Grimm brothers – thus falling into the same category as the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, who created his own tales so effectively that many people still believe he merely retold existing ones. One of the very best contemporary authors to march in Andersen’s footsteps is Alethea Kontis, who has figured out how to give fairy tales some thoroughly modern twists while remaining true to their essential undercurrents and making them appealing to preteen and young teenage readers – whose sophistication today is at a level quite different from that of their peers just a few decades ago. Kontis’ Enchanted was an absolutely remarkable mashup of multiple fairy tales, twisted into a Möbius strip of a story whose romantic, heroic, magical and hilarious elements were constantly tripping over each other, to the delight of absolutely everyone (even including most of the book’s characters). It is wonderful that Kontis has decided to turn Enchanted into merely (merely?) the first book in a series called The Woodcutter Sisters, because the second book, Hero, is every bit as…well…enchanting as the first. The “back story” here is of the seven children of a not-so-simple woodcutter and his wife, whose name is Seven because she is the seventh child of her parents, whose contact with the fey provides the underlying magical connection for many of the happenings. Seven herself, who speaks little because her words have the force of commands whether she wants them to or not, has seven children of her own, their appearances and powers largely (but not entirely!) drawn from the old rhyme that begins, “Monday’s child is fair of face.” Kontis complicates matters thoroughly as she draws on, distorts, remakes and occasionally eviscerates the entire fairy-tale world. Enchanted was primarily the story of Sunday; Hero is primarily the tale of Saturday – tall, statuesque, lacking any magical abilities (she thinks), wishing for adventure, good with a sword (especially one that contains a bit of magic), hotheaded, unromantic and something of a whirlwind (whose mouth tends to run away with her, leaving her glad that her words do not have the force of commands). However, any reader who thinks he or she can figure out where Kontis is going with this combination of characteristics has not reckoned with just how good a writer Kontis is. For every expected element of Hero (Saturday wishes for adventure and finds when she gets it that it is not at all what she wished for), there are numerous unexpected ones (she gets stuck in a mountain so high that Time cannot reach it, where two of her companions are a young, somewhat enchanted skirt-wearing nobleman and a chimera that is repeatedly transformed into stranger and stranger two-creature combinations because of the misfiring, dragon-fueled magic of a blind witch). Mistaken identities and not-understood consequences abound in Hero, and the book is so fast-paced in so many directions that it would be a chore to follow if all the directions were not so tremendously entertaining. Hero is every bit as good as Enchanted – a high compliment. And it not only enthralls from start to finish but also whets one’s appetite for the next installment of this utterly captivating series – a higher compliment still.
There will be no followup to The Adventures of Gremlin, because both its creators have passed on – and that is a shame, because the oddly skewed and pun-filled world of this book is another fairy-tale delight, although admittedly a lesser one than that of Kontis’ novels. Note that the title does not refer to a gremlin: Gremlin is the name of the book’s protagonist, a little girl whose brother is named Zeppelin. And those are just mild examples of the peculiar sense of humor of DuPre Jones (1935-2012), whose sole published book is this one, which dates to 1966. The story is not quite as timeless as the best fairy tales – for example, 21st-century readers will likely not understand why the two kingdoms in the story are called Etaoin and Shrdlu, because few people today know what a linotype is and what those letter sequences signify (suffice it to say that they are roughly equivalent to Qwertyuiop and Asdfghjkl on a computer keyboard, but are thankfully easier to try to pronounce). But today’s readers will certainly enjoy Jones’ playfulness with a wide variety of fairy-tale tropes, from the unhappy, adventure-seeking children of a woodcutter (who, unlike Kontis’, is absent from the story), to a thoroughly untraditional fairy godmother who must be summoned with words that Gremlin cannot quite seem to remember, to a wombat much given to lantern-swinging and uttering quotations in Latin. Non-Latin speakers, which would include almost everybody, may find this last element a trifle off-putting; in fact, several characters in the book utter phrases in that elegant language, all of them untranslated; and there are a couple of equally untranslated comments tossed about in French as well. Jones uses his own erudition perhaps a trifle too much as a club to beat his readers about the head. But on the other hand, he is fond of thoroughly bad puns, such as the “buoys and gulls” that the adventuring children find at the seashore and a game in which pirates throw rocks at seabirds as their captain exhorts them to “leave no tern unstoned.” The Adventures of Gremlin is not a book for children, although it has children as its central characters, and in this way it does bear a strong resemblance to traditional fairy tales. The appearance of a giant and a black knight fits the old models, too, as does the discovery – likely to no one’s surprise – that Gremlin is really the princess of Etaoin, abandoned as a baby and then discovered in a thoroughly biblical (specifically Mosaic) way. On the other hand, a bear licensed to eat traitors and a poet who writes really awful limericks and then attributes deep meaning to them are characters right out of Jones’ offbeat imagination. And speaking of offbeat, one truly timeless and completely delightful element of The Adventures of Gremlin is its visualization by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), whose illustrations of the major and minor characters are often laugh-out-loud hilarious (“the muse of mal de mer” and an incongruously dressed pirate leader with one wooden leg and one very hairy flesh-and-blood one are two of the latter). Gorey fans will relish his handling of the portrayal of the Red Cross Knight, whom Gremlin accompanies as he attempts to overcome the seven deadly sins and, falling one short, decides to go back and explore the ones he missed. The skeletal children who “go by the names of the maladies” they contract in a dungeon where Gremlin is held for a time give Gorey a chance to show the “walking cadaver” look with which he is often identified, but it is the touches of humor that are more noteworthy here: the constantly changing words on Zeppelin’s clothing, for example, and the peculiar creature that Gremlin imagines to be the secret admirer with whom she falls in love after he writes her a series of “singularly moving and simple” but decidedly illiterate letters. The Adventures of Gremlin is a pleasure and an oddity, perhaps not in that order – a small book that takes its fairy-tale heritage quite a bit less than seriously and, as a result, produces quite a bit more amusement than it otherwise might.