Remember The Blue Fairy Book? The Yellow Fairy Book and all the other primary colored editions? Or their lesser-known cousins Pink, Grey and Crimson Fairy Books? I checked out every one I could find at the local library, and spent endless hours reading about talking beasts, seventh sons, missing women and bloody appendages (these were graphic fairy tales). Apparently, Jane Yolen shared a similar predilection towards fairy tales, folklore and myths and much of her writing is built on that foundation. “Once” is an honorary anthology that puts together many of Yolen’s interpretations of fairy tales, interspersed with short essays and a number of poems.
In my imaginary book-world, Jane is clearly friends with Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley. They share a distinct tendency towards dreamy works, feminist-inclined re-imaginings and occasionally grim plots; not everything is “happily ever after.” “Once” stays true to the feminist re-inventive tradition, at turns fierce, humorous and empowering. A running theme throughout is the power of words and language. The short stories are very much in the fairy tale and occasionally folk tale tradition, and if you remember your color fairy books, some of these will seem familiar. Like fairy tales, many surround the theme of male-female relationships and transformation and don’t turn out to everyone’s happiness.
The fairy tales have a wide variety of styles and tones. A few of her unusual set ups are successes. One that stands out in my memory is “Happy Dens or A Day in the Old Wolves’ Home.” Nurse Lamb arrives at her first day of work at the Happy Den, where aging, toothless wolves are fed mash. Poor Nurse Lamb is somewhat intimidated by her new charges until she learns what really happened with Peter and the Wolf, the three (greedy) pigs and Little Red Riding Hood (who has a penchant for pretending). Then there’s “Flight,” an enchanting little story of a daring child braving a stolen ride on Athena’s pegasus. “Dream Weaver” follows the tale-within-a-tale format of a blind weaver weaving tales in the marketplace; her fascinating little stories are only slightly marred by the unsurprising ending. “Words of Power” seems to be based on a Native American tale of a rather surly girl on the cusp of adulthood. One of my favorites, it even managed to surprise me with both the plot and the moral. “Snow in Summer” is the best Snow White interpretation I’ve read yet. “The Moon Ribbon” was a delightful tale in the Cinderella tradition, with a young woman who learns to take initiative.
I actually enjoyed the poetry far more than I expected; I have the tendency to skim over it in many similar anthologies. The poetry tended towards integration with the modern world. “Mother Goose’s Maladies Or: Aren’t You Glad You Asked?” stands out as particularly clever, divided into six parts that anyone over 40 can empathize with–knee, back, colon, reflux, memory and the old gander.
The essays are wonderful musings on writing, storytelling and fairy tales. “Fantasy Novels: Truth in Disguise?” is hysterical, consisting entirely of footnotes. My favorite? “3. Of course Le Guin is a fanatic about such things. Consider her background.” The footnotes cite everyone from Joseph Campbell to Dorothy Parker and Melville. “Oh God, Here Come the Elves,” starts with a laughable idea–why must elves make their way into seemingly every fantasy story–and ends with profound musings on writers being open to their craft. “Like the sibyls before us, we must be overwhelmed by the vatic voice… The author, lacking leaves, pot, and cave walls, uses black smudges on a page.”
Ultimately, a three-and-a-half star read for me. A few of the tales stumbled in execution, particularly “Golden Balls” and “The Barbarian and the Queen: Thirteen Views.” The tone of some of the poems felt uneven to me; they would be beautiful and word-smithy, and then end with a twisty little snark-like comment that threw my reading off. Perhaps the biggest detraction is that even these re-tellings lack the sophistication I look for in my reading these days. However, her essays were fascinating and left me wanting more.
From “The Story Between,” one of her core concepts:
“It is merely that we bring to tales that most complex of constructs–ourselves.”