Books: nonfiction fairy tales

As I have mentioned before, I have taken an interest in fairy tales and, as part of a personal reading goal, set off this year to read about them including retellings and nonfiction. Nonfiction took over recently with two (very different) reads on the subject.

Book #1: Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The edition: Italian edition published by Bompiani, 231 pages. It includes the original Tree and Leaf (“On Fairy Stories”, “Tree by Niggle” and the poem “Mythopoeia”), plus Smith of Wootton Major and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. Translation by Francesco Saba Sardi and Fabrizio Dubosc.

My thoughts: I am completely baffled by Tolkien’s nonfiction essay. The whole thing is way too theological for me, and full of scholarly references that I didn’t get. But the thing that baffles me is another one: Tolkien never wholly makes up his mind whether to consider fairies as real or not. At the beginning, I thought his references to the fairy folk were a kind of inside joke, but they were not, and I am left wondering. Because to me religion and fairy tales belong separately, being one real an one fantasy, I cannot agree with Tolkien’s views — and really wonder how it was possible for him to mix them up. Maybe he did believe in fairies after all.
There is just one thing I save: Smith of Wootton Major is a very nice and tender fairy tale and it made me think of Stardust.


Book #2: Morphology of the Folk-Tale, by Vladimir Propp

The edition: Italian edition, as published by Einaudi in Piccola Biblioteca (softcover), edited (and translated, I think) by Gian Luigi Bravo, 124 pages. The edition also includes a comment by Claude Levi-Strauss and a reply by Propp, but I didn’t read them this time.

My thoughts: I remember studying this theory as part of one of my courses at university, but it didn’t leave much of a memory. Reading it with a different attention and a different interest was, indeed interesting. On the other hand, this too was full of references, this time to Russian tales I had never heard before, and a bit too “technical” for my liking.

These two left me wanting. Have you read any good non-fiction about fairy tales? Please share in the comments!

Book: Odd and the Frost Giants

The book: Odd and the Frost Giants, by Neil Gaiman

The edition: Bloomsbury World Book Day edition, 99 pages, illustrated by Mark Buckingham

The story: Odd is “a boy with one good leg, one very bad leg, and a wooden crutch” who runs away from a Viking village after his father’s death. But in the woods he meets a fox, a bear and an eagle, three speaking animals that are not what they seem to be. They tell him a strange story and have a mission for him — one involving Gods and Giants and the Sun and the Moon.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: Neil Gaiman is always an absolute guarantee. This is a tiny book but it’s crammed with good things: a good story, an engaging and simple narration, a sense of humor, and also nice illustrations. When I saw this available on BookCrossing, I joined in the ring immediately, without even checking out what it was about — and lo and behold, it fits perfectly in my current Norwegian-themed reads, which added to my experience. Perfect read for a wintery night!

Language & writing: what made me wonder is that the book is written in a fairy tale (or children story) style, but it offers much more than that.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I loved the elements that I could connect with the Lord of the Rings (the well of wisdom is like the mirror of Galadriel, and drinking its water has the same effect as drinking Ent-draught), but I guess both tap on older Nordic sources. Which makes me think: the Edda is on my TBR, need to get to that soon.

Read this if: if you like fantasy, fairy tales, anything Gaiman…

Counts as: Travel with books – Norway; What’s in a Name – purse

Book: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

The book: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, by Jessica Day George

The edition: Bloomsbury paperback, 330 pages, with Norwegian/Old Norse glossary, bibliography and author’s note.

The story: a retelling of an old Norse fairy tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, where a young peasant girl is asked to go and live with a polar bear in an enchanted palace for one year.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I found this book completely by chance. In late 2011 I was looking for books set in Norway and I was looking for fairy tales retellings, and I decided to buy this one even if it was not one of the best recommended options for either group.
And I’m so glad I did, because it may be the best book I read in 2012 so far.
I read it having only a vague notion of the original tale, and it is beautifully built and written. Now that I have read the original story as well, I can see that it’s much more than that, because the author developed all those parts that were hidden or not explained in the original, and she did a great job of it.
Bottom line: definitely recommended!

The part with spoilers: if there is one thing I didn’t appreciate, is a lacking growth of the protagonist. She is always described as a little girl, and despite the man sleeping in her bed she seems to develop only a strong feeling of friendship towards the inhabitants of the castle — and then all of a sudden she’s in love and of an age to get married. But I get that’s quite the rule with fairy tales.

Links to better understand this book:

In the author’s own words: this comes from the acknowledgments, but I absolutely loved it:

This book was made possible by the letter “ø.”
Also the letter “æ.”
The first time I saw them, I fell in love and just had to learn the language they belonged to. That language turned out to be Norwegian, with its rich history of folk tales about trolls and polar bears and clever young lads and lasses out to make their fortune. I only hope that I didn’t offend my Danish blacksmith forbears by choosing to study Norwegian instead of Danish in college.

Read this if: if you are in any way interested in fairy tale retellings and/or Norse folklore, do try this one

Counts as: Travel with Books project – Norway; What’s in a Name Challenge – calendar; Antonym Challenge – “ice” vs. “fire”; fairy tale retellings personal project (Oh how I love when the same book counts for so many things! 🙂 )

Book: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

The book: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

The edition: Headline Review paperback, 397 pages

The story: a retelling of Cinderella, set in XVII-century, artist-full, tulip-crazed Holland

My experience with the book and my thoughts: I read this as the first fairy-tale retelling in my own plan this year to read about fairy tales and myths, but I was disappointed. This novel is vaguely based on the well-known tale of Cinderella, but it’s much more a study in what is beauty. I was expecting a tale and I got almost a philosophical treaty. Which is to say, the book is good, I enjoyed the way the characters are drawn and detailed, I was less keen on the way they changed abruptly, but it is a valid book. Not what I was looking forward to, though.

In the author’s own words: about beauty

The Gospels are peopled suddenly and forever by the images that artists deliver for you. We did our work, and God reaped he reward in increased prayer. The true consequence of beauty is devotion.

Counts as: my own interest in fairy-tale retellings