Fairy tales: what’s not to love? Or hate?
Some say fairy tales embody universal tropes that pass along the most basic traditions of social information and behavior—
- Watch out for those who are different.
- Fear the unknown.
- Obey your mother, or the big bad wolf will eat you.
- Play your cards right, and a fairy (or a prince or an enchanted frog) will rescue you.
- Follow the rules, and you will live happily ever after.
But that can’t be the whole answer because fairy tales aren’t actually all that traditional. The ones our grandchildren hear are not the same ones our grandparents told, and they certainly bear little resemblance to their early versions. If the stories don’t change constantly, their meaning becomes irrelevant. Certainly we don’t want our children to hear that the path to true love is for a monster to kidnap and imprison a girl until she agrees to marry him. Or that a young woman can’t live happily ever after unless some prince ‘rescues’ her. Or that your stepmother will try to kill you. And maybe eat your heart…
All you have to do is go back and look at the original versions to see what I mean. In one of the earliest known sources for many of our familiar fairy tales, Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales/Il Pentamerone (1634), Cinderella is a conniving girl who murders her first stepmother in The Cinderella Cat, but still ends up marrying a prince. In Charles Perrault’s original version from Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times: Tales of Mother Goose (1697), Little Red Riding Hood strips naked, climbs into bed with the wolf and is…er…eaten. (Contemporary readers would have understood the reference, because the term for a girl losing her virginity was elle avoit vû le loup — she has seen the wolf.) In Basile’s The Little Slave Girl (Snow White), a girl cursed to die at age seven grows to adulthood in an enchanted sleep while encased in a glass coffin, only to be awakened and enslaved by her jealous aunt.
So…given the way fairy tales have evolved—you only have to take a look at the kickass heroines in modern interpretations of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted or Ever After—it’s clearly not respect for tradition that makes us love fairy tales. No, I think it’s the one thing fairy tales have had in common since their earliest beginnings: the ending. We’re suckers for the happily ever after.
I was an adult before I realized that’s also what’s wrong with fairy tales. I’m not in them. Only two people in each story get that HEA, while everybody else in the entire friggin kingdom…doesn’t. And that’s the real problem with fairy tales. They’re the lottery. We know, objectively, that the odds against being the powerball winner are a bazillion to one. But why shouldn’t that one be me? So we buy millions of lottery tickets anyway. And we know just as objectively that the odds against being the ones silhouetted against the sunset with the words “happily ever after” across the page are just as unlikely.
But the reason fairy tales (and lotteries) are so successful is that there’s a chance we’ll win. If not a boatload of lottery millions, then at least the happily ever after.
And that’s why we love fairy tales. And why we hate them.
Midnight Sisters by Sarah E. Boucher
Do not meddle with the Master’s daughters.
The words rattle around Jonas’s head. What is the punishment again? Death? Dismemberment? Jonas, the newest addition to the gardening staff, can’t recall the exact penalty for breaking the rule. What does it matter anyway? He would never dream of meddling with the Earl of Bromhurst’s haughty daughters.
Until he comes face to face with Lady Ariela, the eldest of the Master’s daughters.
Her elusive smile and open manner cause him to question his convictions. In no time, he’s drawn into Lady Ariela’s world of mystery and intrigue, a world where she and her sisters will do anything—including leaving twelve empty beds at midnight—to escape their father’s strict rules.
Only Jonas can uncover the truth and save them from their father’s wrath and their own folly, if he is willing to risk everything he’s ever worked for.
What is it about fairy tales that keeps us coming back to them, reimagining their details and reinventing their meanings with almost every generation? University of Chicago professor Armando Maggi who studies fairy tales, says:
We cannot live without mythology. It’s the way we reason, the way we survive, the way we make sense of our world. It’s just that the stories we’ve been using—mythic stories, fairy tales, legends—they’re not working anymore. We need something new. What we long for is a remythologization of reality. (—Armando Maggi, University of Chicago Magazine, 11 June, 2012)
But I’m not sure I agree with his thesis that our search will take us away from fairy tales. Indeed, if you follow his research into the earliest versions of familiar tales, one thing that’s clear is that while each generation may change the trappings and socially acceptable details of a story, the basic themes and stories keep reappearing.
Take The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the original fairy tale reimagined by Sarah Boucher in her new release, Midnight Sisters. A relatively recent addition to the fairy tale genre, its first documented versions were collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. There were also similar versions, such as Katie Crackernuts and others. But by the next generation, the tale was already being changed to gloss over bits deemed offensive by Victorian readers—such as Andrew Lang’s version where death sentences for the princesses’ prior suitors disappeared.
The tale, as reimagined in Midnight Sisters, is told from the point of view of Jonas, a teenage gardener newly-hired at the estate of the Earl of Bromhurst. Jonas is more worried about pleasing his boss than he is about the strict rules around avoiding the Earl’s twelve beautiful daughters. That’s until he meets Ariela, the eldest sister. The tale jumps forward a decade, and the now mature Jonas is completely (although hopelessly) in love with Ariela. Meanwhile, the sisters—who have grown increasingly frustrated by a restricted lifestyle from which the only escape seems to be into marriages with unappealing suitors—have found a way to escape, if only temporarily. Naturally, the discovery that his daughters have disappeared without (apparently) leaving the castle, has the Earl frantic.
Jonas, who is equally worried about the sisters’ safety, decides to try to spy on them to see where they have been disappearing. In this, he reluctantly accepts the help of Braden, a new young gardener who reminds him of his own younger brothers at their worst and best. Their fears, it turns out, are well-founded, and the two must risk their jobs and their very lives in a desperate rescue.
I enjoyed so many aspects of this retelling. The decidedly working class young gardener, Jonas, makes an engaging narrator. With his unsophisticated country background, he seems unimaginative at times, but his unwavering love and loyalty are endearing. The brash, flashy Braden is hiding secrets of his own, but it’s nice to watch as cautious Jonas is slowly won over.
There were pieces that I would have liked to see developed further. The abrupt gap between Jonas meeting Ariela and the later action in the book meant that we were told about their relationship, but we were never actually shown any of the details of how an aristocrat falls in love with a gardener. That lack made it difficult for me to get invested in the lovers’ plight, and made the first half of the book seem slow. The author glossed over the (somewhat unavoidable) sexism in which the sisters must be saved by the heroes and ‘rescued’ into marriage. And the huge cast meant that most of the sisters could only be portrayed as tropes and stereotypes.
But the second half did turn into a nice mystery thriller, with Jonas and Braden stepping somewhat uncomfortably into the role of heroes. There was even a most unconventional fairy godmother figure. And the ending was tied up with a twist in the very best fairy tale tradition, ensuring that most essential of elements: the happily-ever-after.
Midnight Sisters is an undemanding and entertaining retelling of a favorite fairy tale, and suitable for readers from YA to adult. I would give it 3.5 stars, and recommend it for anyone looking for an enjoyable romantic story.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
Book Title: Midnight Sisters
Author: Sarah E Boucher
Genre: Fairy Tale Retelling
Length: 188 pages
Release Date: 4 January, 2017