January 18, 2007


The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales. By Gail Carson Levine. HarperCollins. $14.99.

     Gail Carson Levine is best known for Ella Enchanted, but her six “Princess Tales” are every bit as enchanting and at least equally clever.  This new book collects them all.

     Written between 1999 and 2002, the “Princess Tales” are anything-but-typical recastings and reconsiderations of familiar and less-familiar fairy tales.  The first of them, “The Fairy’s Mistake,” is a deliciously skewed version of the old story of the good and bad sisters who are respectively rewarded and punished for the way they respond to the request of an old lady – a fairy in disguise – for a share of their food.  Yes, the good girl produces jewels when she speaks, and a prince falls in love with her and asks her to marry him; and yes, the bad girl speaks toads (and insects and reptiles and more, in Levine’s version).  But what makes Levine so different from other retellers is that this is, for her, only the starting point.  It turns out that the good girl is made miserable by her gift, while the bad one turns her punishment to her advantage – and the fairy is simply furious at how everything works out.  Eventually, all does turn out well – Levine makes the sisters twins, which helps a lot – and the fairy ends up punishing herself by spending seven years flying without landing at all.  We learn this in “The Fairy’s Return,” which is an update and sendup of the tale of the sticky golden goose whose master ends up with a parade of people trailing behind him, all stuck together, thus making a princess laugh and winning her hand.  Except that in Levine’s version, he has won her heart already, and even after the goose trick, the king won’t let him marry his daughter until the lad accomplishes several seemingly impossible tasks – with which the fairy helps him, thus regaining her self-confidence.

     This is wonderful stuff.  Intended for ages 7-12 – and unfortunately bearing a cover whose photo of a very young girl may turn away older readers who would otherwise enjoy these stories quite a bit – The Fairy’s Return and Other Princess Tales succeeds in part by applying just the tiniest bit of logic to some of the old stories.  For example, in “For Biddle’s Sake,” which partakes of “Rapunzel” and other tales, we have a girl accidentally transformed into a toad by a misguided spell cast by the fairy with whom she lives.  Now, this girl – named not Rapunzel (a green known as rampion) but Parsley, for the equally green food she most loves to eat – thinks through her predicament and realizes something important.  Obviously, as a human, she cannot do magic, since (as the fairy has told her) only magical creatures can do that.  But now that she has been transformed into a toad, isn’t she a magical creature?  This provides the key to the eventual happy ending of the story.

     Yes, all six tales end happily, including “The Princess Test” (which is “The Princess and the Pea” taken to ridiculous lengths); “Cinderellis and the Glass Hill” (in which Cinderella is a boy and something of a crackpot inventor, except that his inventions save the day); and “Princess Sonora and the Long Sleep” (in which Levine applies logic to what Sleeping Beauty and the residents of the castle would look like and smell like after a hundred-year slumber).  Filled with wit and silliness, often in equal measure, Levine’s “Princess Tales” are all stuff and nonsense – but as in the original stories they expand and lovingly parody, there are bits of wisdom lurking amid the amusements, too.  This collection is, to put it plainly and simply, enchanting.

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