And she lived, ever after

Tales both grimmer and lighter than the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm seemed to like

Coming up on the dark time of the year, with the longest nights, the Beamers took a trip into the darker recesses of fairy tales and folklore with Tanith Lee’s collection of revised tales, Redder Than Blood.  Known for her wide-ranging interests and settings, Ms. Lee was one of the originators of the current fictional exercise of updating, inverting, and/or subverting the classic stories that provide Disney with so much family-friendly content.  Would the Beamers find her a light in the darkness or be waylaid on the way to Grandma’s house?

The Good (Writers) Die Young

Ms. Lee, who died in 2015 at age 67 following a battle with breast cancer, was a multiple award winner for her fantasy and her science fiction works, many of which tended to cross over into the other genre.  While her earlier works are still in print, many of her later works are hard to locate and her lack of publication over the last decade had led many of her fans to wonder (prematurely) if she had died.  In truth, though frustrated by her inability to get published by major houses, she continued to write, but she also tried not to repeat herself, venturing into historical fiction with a novel about the French Revolution (The Gods are Thirsty), Gothic tales, space operas, children’s stories, and YA fiction. Redder Than Blood, our book, is itself a shout-out to her first fairy tale retellings, published as Red As Blood in 1983.

With A Few, Well-chosen Words

In whatever genre she worked, Ms. Lee was noted for the poetic style of her prose, a talent on which Fran remarked when describing what she liked about the pieces.  There is a compression to her style that places a seeming abundance of detail about persons, places, things, but within a short space of writing.  I thought that her shorter pieces do show off her power to evoke sensory and emotional details better than her longer works, where the concentrated imagery can become overwhelming.  And working with deeply powerful images that populate fairy tales also gave her a chance to introduce iconic figures and situations without long build-ups.

Did those archetypal figures hold any interest for us?  Well, we did discuss the role of “evil” step-parents in classic tales, and the interpretation of Freudian analysts such as Bruno Bettelheim (whom both Fran and I name-checked) where the psychological component of mother figures and absent/adversarial fathers tied to their beloved Oedipal Complex was credited with giving fairy tales their enduring power.  Ms. Lee, on the other page, liked to reverse much of the classic tale, where the “reward” of marriage to a prince becomes not exactly the stuff of “happily ever after” but generally the start of “three years later, he hit me for the first time”, a line that Kathy cried over.

The Not Always Humane Society

For kissing a frog is not always a good move in a Tanith Lee story, as it changes the terms of what is actually a positive connection for an otherwise friendless princess, who loses a loving companion (albeit in amphibian form) and suddenly is an abused wife.  Nick noted that the continuing parade of abusive males made the book seem a bit strident in its condemnation of the unhappy ways of male/female relations.  However, the recent spate of harassment cases and the general understanding among women about facing regular unwanted sexual advances seem to make the works prophetic or even a bit tamer than the ugly reality.  Which is what fairy tales do, again in the psychological sense of preparing people to face the unfairness and harshness of reality, cloaked in the form of a wolf or a frog or a swan honking for her offspring, lost to hunters.

And we all enjoyed the stories where some of the sting of the original tales was reversed into a happier outcome, such as the case of the wolf cross-dressing in Grandma’s clothes winding up in bed with both Grandma and Red (“Wolfed”).  Or the prodigy prince, scarred in battle, who brings home the commoner wife, dressed up in a fairy tale about towers, wicked witches, and long gold hair, and finds that it charms his distant father, who loves both a story and his youngest son (“Rapunzel”).  And yet, Ms. Lee can turn around and make the same legend into a horror story of carnivorous plant trapping an incautious traveler (“Open Your Window, Golden Hair”), enough to make Kathy shudder.

Many Choices Were Made

Given both her broad writing interests and the fairly long spread of time from publication of the collected stories (from 1986 up to 3 works original to this volume), it is not surprising that our reactions to the book were varied.  Alan found that the editor seemingly put the weaker stories up front and left the better ones for later in the volume, a strategy that would have caused him to quit after the opening offering (“Redder Than Blood”) if not for his awareness of Ms. Lee’s reputation.  Nick found that he enjoyed her earlier works more and so confined his reading to pre-2000 works, at least initially, though he felt he would continue to the more current stories.  Kathy caught herself re-reading the final paragraphs of several of the stories, a sign she felt that demonstrated the power and the surprise that those ending words contain.  “Kiss, Kiss”, the loving frog who becomes the abusive prince, particularly halted and held her.

One reaction that was common was a general dislike of that title story, “Redder Than Blood”, which, being longer (34 pages) did tend to follow my observation that Ms. Lee works best at short length.  Still, “My Life as a Swan”, the “Swan Lake”-inspired story, which is the longest piece in the book (57 pages) won praise from everyone, as did “Into Gold”, the oldest story and also 33 pages in length.  My only disappointment with the latter was not having a reference by name to “the Empire”, clearly Rome but often “Remusa” (from Remus instead of Romulus) in her alt-history tales.

The Tales Go Ever, Ever On

Were we to sum up our feelings, then, we were moved and dazzled by Ms. Lee’s command of both fact and fiction, of head and heart.  We enjoyed her feminist explorations of the insides of classic fairy tales, even when the matter of her stories grew quite disturbing (such as underage “sleeping” beauties offered up, for a fee, to not-so-charming johns).  But then, the original tales, underneath their bowdlerized and commodified adaptations for aspiring princesses, are also pretty disturbing.  Could we recommend the book as an introduction to Tanith Lee?  Maybe not, as she does so much more in fantasy and science fiction in addition to her groundbreaking feminist fairy tale reworkings.  But, none of us had any regrets to making or renewing our acquaintance with her beloved wolves, witches, and wayward women.

 

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1 Comment

  1. One of your better titles.

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