December 14, 2006


Once Upon a Time (She Said). By Jane Yolen. NESFA Press. $26.

     So immersed in the world of fairy tales is Jane Yolen that it sometimes seems her stories, like Hans Christian Andersen’s, are merely retellings of age-old legends.  But, like Andersen, Yolen is a creator of new fairy tales, using the old ones as models.  And hers are as much of our time as Andersen’s were of his.

     Andersen’s stories were all about pain and loss and, much of the time, failure.  Yes, the Ugly Duckling turns out to be a gorgeous swan (in a highly autobiographical tale).  But the Little Mermaid does not get her prince – she turns into sea foam, the Disney version notwithstanding.  The Little Match Girl freezes to death in a tale whose bleakness is relieved only for those of strong religious faith, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier is melted in a story with at best a bittersweet ending.  Yolen’s stories contain pain, loss and failure, too, but their perspective is quite different: sometimes feminist, sometimes humanist, sometimes humorous, sometimes self-consciously imitative of Grimm fairy tales and other models.

     Once Upon a Time (She Said) contains 81 titled sections that include more than 81 stories, poems and nonfiction essays; for example, “Dream Weaver” is a loosely connected group of seven tales.  The order of the 81 seems somewhat arbitrary, containing no obvious thematic referents and no particular reason to (for example) put nonfiction works such as “The Brothers Grimm and Sister Jane” and “Remembering Books” in the midst of various tales.  But editor Priscilla Olson’s reasons for the sequencing of the items matter less than those items’ quality, which is uniformly high and frequently outstanding.

     Yolen is at all times aware of the archetypes within which she works, referring in her nonfiction to such prototypes as “type 450,” “Grimm No. 6,” Gnostic gospels and much more.  She is erudite and is clearly a teacher of considerable expertise.  But she is first and foremost a writer, as the sheer abundance of her fairy tales attests.  Many of these stories last only a couple of pages, and the poems may take up only half a page, but Yolen makes her points clearly and cleanly, and often with considerable emotional impact.  Skilled with language, she can arrange for the simple word “so” to be fraught with meaning in one paragraph, then use “pullulation” aptly shortly afterwards.  Sensitive to fairy-tale structure – she is expert at the use of “once” to introduce stories and “now” to change scenes within them – Yolen manages to make many of her tales reach out emotionally with as much effect as their non-Bowdlerized prototypes used to possess.

     Oh yes, these are stories for adults.  In one, Aladdin’s widow, fondly remembering his sexual prowess, tries to use the magic lamp to obtain a suitable substitute – with hilarious results that would fit the Arabian Nights quite well (although Yolen’s solution is a great deal less raunchy).  In another tale, the tragic (or at least pathos-filled) “Brother Hart,” it is sexual jealousy that leads to the final crisis.

     Even when Yolen writes much lighter fare, she is clearly recapturing fairy tales from the child orientation imposed on them in Victorian times, restoring them to their standing as pithy reminders and warnings directed at adults.  A humorous poem such as “Mother Goose’s Maladies,” to cite just one example, is quite clearly not for kids, with its references to reflux and diverticulitis.  Yolen is a remarkable writer, encapsulating large themes in a few words in just the way that the oral tradition of fairy tales did for so many hundreds of years.  The dark things of today may seem different from those of the past, but Yolen’s stories show how strongly the old rural and feudal motifs – dark forests, enchanted castles, nobles and beauties transformed by magic, and so on – continue to resonate even now.

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