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A magical journey into the world of folk tales and myth led by a guide with a definite passion for the subject.

Book Review: A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects by Catherynne M. Valente

Folktales and fairy tales can be almost anything we want them to be, it seems. One person’s folktale could just as easily be another person’s religion. Go to any book store and pick up a copy of what somebody has euphemistically called a collection of folktales, and odds are good you’re liable to find yourself in the middle of somebody else’s creation story, though I doubt many people would ever consider calling The Bible a collection of folktales.

What are folktales if not just what they say they are: tales about a folk. The Old Testament is a history of the Jewish people and The New Testament the story of Christianity. To Jews and Christians, both these books have special significance respectively, but to the rest of the world they have no more intrinsic value than any other tales recounting the exploits of various folk heroes. Job and Jonah are no more or less important than Robin Hood or King Arthur to a Hindu or a Buddhist.

Catherynne M. Valente.jpgFolk heroes are developed as a means of instructing people in the ways of their civilization. They can either take the form of an idealized role model who exemplifies the attributes that make a person a worthy member of society, or they can be a contrary type character whose behaviour provides a lesson in how not to behave. With that in mind, it stands to reason that periodic attempts are made to update our tales so they reflect how our attitudes have changed over the years.

Over the past few years we’ve seen many fantasy writers experiment with this idea, and quite a few anthologies have been published with that express purpose in mind. One of the newest entries into the field of folktale revising has been provided by the American poet and author Catherynne M. Valente with her recently published A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects published by Norilana through their Norilana Curiosities imprint.

Much has been made by so called traditionalists about people revising stories to suit their needs and changing them to something other than what they are supposed to be. The only thing is that some of these “traditional” stories have already undergone any number of revisions over the years that have reflected various changes in doctrine and belief. Many stories that predated Christianity, for instance, were altered to reflect the usurping of a matriarchal society by the patriarch.

I know that sounds like tired feminist drivel, but there also happens to be some truth to it, as the Church found it convenient to simply rename many holidays and figures from myth in order to make conversion more palatable to the masses. It only follows that folktales would have undergone similar conversions. Ms. Valente’s retelling of stories from the perspective of the women involved is nothing more than a continuation of the ongoing process of a story’s evolution.

A Guide To Folktales In Fragile Dialects is a collection of poems and short fiction that gathers stories from cultures around the world and adapts them so the story is not just seen through a woman’s eyes, but also reflects her needs and desires as a person. What if Cinderella didn’t have any intention of marrying Prince Charming, but only wanted a chance to go to a ball? Was Rapunzel really in need of rescue? What about all the rest of the fair flowers we’ve read about waiting for a knight in shining armour or its equivalent? Maybe they didn’t really want to be rescued.

In this collection, the poem “Glass, Blood, and Ash” tells the Cinderella tale from the perspective of a young woman who doesn’t particularly want a Prince Charming. “I never wanted it,” she says. “I just wanted to look like you for one night. It should be you hoisted up like a sack of wheat…You will like it – they will put emeralds in your hair and a thin gold crown on your head.” She mounts argument after argument in order to convince her sister she is the one who should be marrying the Prince and not her. All she has to do is fit in the shoe and the Prince won’t know the difference.

How much vengeance might she be enacting with this gift? There is the matter of ensuring the foot fits, after all. “The doves, their claws still dusty with kitchen-ash / brought me a knife hammered out of a diamond / It is so thin / that a whisper will shatter it / but so sharp / that the flesh cleaves / believes itself whole / Give me your toe…” Here dear sister, hold out your foot and I’ll whittle it down to size so you fit into the glass slipper; then you can be princess. Isn’t that a kind, sisterly, thought? Well of course it is, for as Cinderella says -“Give me your toe / I’m the gentle one, remember?”

Earlier on in the book is the poem “Rampion,” another word for Rapunzel, the name of a type of wildflower, where Ms. Valente gives us her take on that particular story. In this version Rapunzel is a compendium of plants parts and grows accordingly. Her mother is a witch who had no milk to feed her with and so she was raised on vegetables of all kind until she became onto a plant herself. “Can you not love me, libeling / who nestled you in a tower / a plant will grow only so great as its pot,” says the witch to her foundling who she has raised so big, strong, and healthy.

When the hero comes to “rescue” her he saw “a tower wrapped in vines / in cornstalks like knotted ropes / You slashed into them, searching for a door / and I cried out three times. You heard only the sweetness of wind singing through basil and mint / and looked up, starving / your teeth wet and white.” Poor Rapunzel – just another flower to be devoured by a man who sees without understanding. Women throughout history have been taken for delicate flowers and treated accordingly, and now here is one who really is, and what happens? She’s devoured.

From Rapunzel and Cinderella to Persephone and Sita, women from all over the world — from reality, myth, and folktale — are given a voice of their own through the words of Catherynne M. Valente. They may not be the voice some of you are used to, or some of you even like, but that doesn’t make them any less valid than the voices they have spoken with at any other point in time.

Folktales speak with the voice of the folk who are writing them and as an expression of the community the writer represents. Ms. Valente’s early education as a Classicist and her history of publishing critical analysis of myths are sufficient to give her authority to tackle this project credence, but it’s her imagination and beautiful use of language that make it work.

A Guide To Foktales In Fragile Dialects is a magical journey into the world of folktales and myth led by a guide with a definite passion for the subject. Each of the pieces makes for thought provoking and sometimes humorous reading. They’re all tales my kind of folk would tell. How about yours?

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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