HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!
Here’s the fifth in my FAIRYTALE FANTASY posts!
TO REPEAT from fairytale fantasy post #1: the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially one coming from the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books in this series of posts does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that sense. AND I’m not dealing with anything Disney (although I guess I kind of lied about that in the last few posts).
The fairytale fantasy novels
My top picks:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Based on the Grimms’ Brothers fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin. Discussed in my fairytale fantasy post #1.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. Based on the Senegalese folk tale Ansige the Glutton. Discussed in my fairytale fantasy post #2.
Other fairytale fantasy novels:
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Influenced by Chinese ghost lore. Discussed in my fairytale fantasy post #3.
Alice, by Christina Henry. Based on Alice in Wonderland. Discussed in my fairytale fantasy post #4.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire. Based on the French fairy tale Cinderella. DISCUSSED IN THIS POST.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Influenced by Mesoamerican folklore and myth.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa. Influenced by Japanese folklore.
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten. Maybe influenced by Little Red Riding Hood, but more closely based on Beauty and the Beast.
Today’s fairytale fantasy review:
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire’s 1999 reimagining of the Cinderella story, published by Regan Books (now reissued by William Morrow), is the second novel in which he used that technique. The first, Wicked, a reimagining of the Wicked Witch of the West character in The Wizard of Oz, is probably his best-known of these novels.
I figure a Cinderella-based novel is the best choice for Valentine’s Day! What’s a more iconic fairy tale, at least for Americans, than that, and it is the classic tale of a certain type of “happily ever after” love.
The fairy tale basis of the novel
Cinderella, as most American readers know it, has filtered through to them through (shhh. . . Walt Disney’s animated movie version from 1950) a number of English language versions. The real ancestor of the English-speaking world’s Cinderella, though, is Charles Perrault’s French version of the story from 1697, Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper). Through the Perrault version, the story acquired the pumpkin coach, the fairy godmother, and especially that glass slipper. (Why doesn’t the glass slipper break and cut Cinderella’s foot? It’s magic! It’s fiction! Don’t ask!) You can read a translation of the Perrault version HERE.
But the story is truly ancient. Scholars have traced it back to ancient Greece and the tale of Rhodopis (“Rosy-cheeks”). Think only scholars know that one? Nope. It makes an appearance in the MMORPG Everquest II as one of the sillier quests in the Rise of Kunark expansion pack. Among others, there’s an Italian version, a German version (the Brothers Grimm collected that one, Aschenputtel), and a number of Asian versions. A lot of versions, a lot of variations on the story and its details. Folklorists classify it as Aarne–Thompson–Uther type 510A, ” The Persecuted Heroine.”
Whatever its true origins, the tale really resonates for generations of young women, especially those who long to become a “Disney princess.” The implications of this longing were explored most famously by the feminist theorist Colette Dowling, in The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence (Summit Books, 1981). The book discusses the Cinderella fairy tale as the template for contemporary women’s longing to be swept off their feet by some powerful male and taken care of.
One of the reasons I really like Gregory Maguire’s take on the Cinderella story in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is how he stands that “Cinderella complex” material on its head. As the title signals, Maguire’s novel isn’t from Cinderella’s point of view and doesn’t cast her as the protagonist. Rather, he focuses his novel on an ordinarily despised character, one of the “ugly stepsisters” who torment the beautiful and virtuous Cinderella in most versions of the fairy tale. This is Maguire’s signature schtick, so maybe that accounts for some of the features I don’t admire so much, as well.
For maybe half of Maguire’s book, we’re reading an historical novel about the 17th Century Netherlands in the grip of its famous Tulip Bubble. In the 1600s, the mania for tulips was so extreme that tulip bulbs were selling at crazy-high prices. Then, as with all such economic bubbles, there came a tulip bust, and all the tulip speculators who had made tidy fortunes were reduced to poverty practically overnight. This strange incident out of history has achieved iconic status among economists. Maguire’s novel and its characters are very skillfully drawn, and he depicts their world with equal power. The experiences of English immigrants to Holland during this period, the tulip speculators, and especially the artists of the 17th century Dutch city of Haarlem are brought to fascinating life. Maguire depicts the lives of the women of that time with special sensitivity and power. As second-class citizens, they must be careful of their reputations and their economic status. Marry for love? Pffft. That’s a course that will lead a young woman to disaster.
BUT. (I suppose if you’ve been reading this blog, you may suspect where I’m going with this. . . ) But Maguire abandons this well-written and absorbing historical novel around midway through to layer the Cinderella story in there with a heavy hand. What a disappointment, especially since I think he could have easily alluded to the Cinderella story and its themes without going for some literal-minded recreation of the fairy tale. His writing is so good that I know he could have brought it off. And there’s an especially egregious and improbable twist at the end, too. So I have very mixed feelings about this novel.
Fantasy-related fictions of all types:
Cinderella is such an iconic fairy tale that many people have taken a crack at it, including many revisionist cracks like this one, and in many different forms. I don’t have room to list them all. For starters, think of opera. Both Rossini (1817) and Massenet (1899) composed Cinderella staples of the opera repertoire, and they’re not the only composers to take on the tale. Prokofiev composed the music for a Cinderella ballet (1940-44), and he’s not the only composer or choreographer to use ballet to explore Cinderella‘s power. Rodgers and Hammerstein produced a musical theater version on Broadway (1957), and since then, the musical has been revived in three other later versions based on their original. The pandemic willing, Andrew Lloyd Webber will bring his own Cinderella musical to Broadway in 2022. (cough) Disney (cough) is not the only filmmaker to bring Cinderella to the big screen (in animation and live action); there have been many others. In fact, a certain type of romance is frequently referred to as a “Cinderella story”–rags to riches in a particularly female form, the riches being acquired by proxy through some prince of a fellow. The movie Pretty Woman (1990), starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, is a prime example.