Once upon a time we were all very young. We used to be able to escape into magical worlds occupied by daring princes who would overcome huge odds to rescue beautiful princesses and ugly trolls and witches who would grind our bones to flour for their bread as soon as look at us. Forests were primordial places filled with dangerous wolves set on eating our grandparents, brave dwarves who protected beautiful virgins from evil stepmothers, and mysterious animals who could grant wishes both perilous and glorious. A person could obtain riches instantly and have all their dreams come true or find that no matter how wealthy they became, happiness continued to escape them. It was a simple world of good against evil where the righteous always triumphed and villainy was always be vanquished in the end.
Unfortunately as we grew older the real world of half-truths, shades of grey that clouded moral issues, and winners who weren’t always the good guy asserted itself. We lost our belief in fairy godmothers who could wave a magic wand and make things better and discovered there wasn’t a pot of gold waiting for us at the end of every rainbow. The witches that lurked in the heart of the forest sending delightful chills up our spine turned into the anxiety of the job interview that has to go well and worries about the price of food. In the face of such pragmatic considerations what place is there in our lives for magic? We no longer dream of fairies or dragons, instead we dream of new cars and houses in a safe neighbourhood. While we still might divide the world into good and evil we do so to justify our actions instead of as a impartial judgement of behaviour.
However, somewhere inside of each us still lurks the heart that was stirred by tales of magic and a part of each of us, no matter how small it might be, still yearns to be dazzled by fairy lights. When we turn on the television, go to the movies, theatre, ballet and opera, or pick up a book, some small piece of us is remembering the thrill we felt as we followed a hero down a dark path in a forest and are hoping for that spirit to be recaptured. Too often we come away disappointed for one reason or another as there are too few stories out there that can capture our imaginations in quite the way the tales of our youth did. When one does come along we latch onto it like a life preserver and it sells in the millions. How else can you explain the phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and the ongoing fascination with J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings?
Understanding our need for magic, and trying to fulfill it, has been the focus of Kate Bernheimer’s literary career. As well as founding the Fairy Tale Review, a literary magazine devoted to modern fairy tales, she has edited anthologies devoted to the retelling of fairy tales, lectured on their validity as literature and done everything in her power to keep them alive. Her latest attempt to help us remember that imaginations are a treasure, My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me, published by Penguin Canada, gathers together stories and authors from around the globe. Each author, whether from Vietnam, Russia, England, Japan, United States and elsewhere was asked to write a story based on a fairy tale or myth that inspired them.
While each of the stories are fascinating, in some ways the paragraphs the authors wrote explaining why they had chosen a particular story, or perhaps, why that story had chosen them, are equally insightful. I was amazed at how many of them admitted the story they had chosen in some way impacted all their work, not just this piece specifically commissioned for the book. Think about that for a second — these people of all ages and backgrounds, have carried around one story in their hearts and it has fed their creativity since they were children. If that isn’t enough right there to convince you magic still exists in the world nothing will.
The more then thirty stories gathered together between the covers of this book aren’t filled with the characters you remember from the fairy tales of your childhood. Some of them may have the occasional king or princess in them, but the majority are about mother’s and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters and other characters we’re all familiar with from our everyday life. Occasionally, a mysterious figure like a mermaid will poke her tail fin into the narrative or we’ll venture into a realm that bears little resemblance to the street we walk down on our way to work, but most of the time we’re surrounded by the everyday. So what makes them fairy tales if there is no princess in the tower waiting to be rescued or pile of gold waiting to be found?
Fairy tales brought magic into our lives in all its obvious guises. A good number of the stories in My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me find the elements of fairy tales being played out around us. The child who imagines a mysterious stranger who has a wonderful surprise for her to escape from her fear of disappointing her mother’s obsession with cost and status; the middle aged mother and wife who feels unappreciated by her husband and daughter only to find out, magically, how much they love her; the husband and wife who drift apart but then discover their true love for each other before it’s too late and the insecure lovers who allow their anxieties to ruin their relationship but ultimately discover themselves as individuals and renew their chance at love. There’s a type of magic that permeates each of these stories; the magic of being alive that so many of us have forgotten about or have never learned to recognize or acknowledge.
As children, fairy tales stirred our imaginations and let us travel beyond the boundaries of the known world. However, as our world began to grow around us we began to lose sight of them until we no longer believed. Collections like My Mother She Killed Me; My Father He Ate Me allow us to realize they haven’t disappeared; we just no longer recognize magic when we see it. We don’t have to mount white chargers or slay dragons to combat evil or break spells to woo our prince or princess anymore, but there’s no denying the magic in discovering love or righting a wrong no matter how trivial. Pots of gold may not glitter the way they did when we were younger, but there are still rewards beyond our imagining awaiting us out in the world — we only have to open our eyes to see them.