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Five Books that Rewrite Magic, Myths, and Ballads


Five Books that Rewrite Magic, Myths, and Ballads

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Five Books that Rewrite Magic, Myths, and Ballads


Published on November 16, 2017


In some ways, we authors all write fan fiction, mirroring (or windowing) our favorite books. We may borrow quotes, characters, settings, even whole plots. We create a lending library of fairy tale novels, Border Ballad reprises, Arthurian rip-offs, Biblical exegesis disguised as short stories, etc. I have done it myself in my latest collection of stories: The Emerald Circus (Tachyon) where I cheerfully plunder Poe, Baum, O’Henry, Arthuriana, all of Wonderland, Neverland, and more.

Publishers lists are full of mash-ups, Jane Austen and Abraham Lincoln battling monsters or solving mysteries. And of course Sherlock and other dicks—private and public—solve loads and loads of fantasy mysteries. And many of us cannot get enough of such books.

My favorites, though, I return to again and again.

T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, where he rewrites Arthurian mythos—recreating, decorating, excoriating, and lifting it into another firmament. Sword is first (and in my mind the best) of the four books that make up The Once and Future King. White, a fairly closeted and self-loathing sexual masochist, turned his agony into a marvelous books that focuses mostly on the young Arthur—called Wart—and the wizard, Merlyn, who lives backwards in time. The scenes where Merlin changes Wart into a succession of animals—fish, hawk (White was a falconer) snake, owl, badger—set up brilliant lessons. Wart learns things that will serve him for the rest of the quartet. It is a stunning recreation, not only of the Arthurian storyline and characters, but of early medieval life, against the perfect embroidery that is White’s own take on the tale.

Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, about the green-skinned witch Elphaba who is the wicked witch from Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. Only this portrayal makes the witch into the hero. Her story is vastly more intricate, the politics of Oz vastly more complicated, and the poignancy of her life (and death in a subsequent volume) vastly more interesting than the sketchy Margaret Hamilton portrayal in the movie. It is a story of sisterly betrayal, loves gained and lost, a devastated soul moving forward into even more devastation. And gorgeously written (there are three further books, equally complicated with lush prose, wicked wit, and occasional snark).

Robin McKinley’s Beauty, rewriting of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” is inventive, sensuous, nature-filled, and gorgeous. The story is often treated (see Disney) as a primer for battered wives. But this Beauty is not battered at all. She is wise, a reader, a tough young woman, and ready to save both herself and ultimately the beast. Yes, there’s a sequel of a sort—Rose Daughter, or at least another look at the story. And McKinley has done a number of other fairy tale rewrites—Rumplstiltskin and Donkey Skin have both been done well by her. But this book, her very first published novel, still remains in my mind and heart.

Gregory Frost took a huge leap writing Fitcher’s Brides, revisioning of the dark fairy tale “Bluebeard.” He sets the story of that peculiar mass murderer of young women in a utopian community that is part of the 1840s period of America’s “Great Awakening.” Elias Fitcher is a charismatic preacher in the Finger Lakes district of New York State. (The title of the novel comes from the Grimm variant of the fairytale, #46.) Fitcher has his wicked mind set on the Charter sisters. There is blood upon the key! Frost’s version of the tale is, in fact, eventually quite bloody, so take that as a trigger warning. It also has a slow and leisurely buildup to both the murders and the magic, which may put off readers who prefer plot-plot-plot driven books. But I till shiver fondly when I think of the this story.

Fire and Hemlock is Diana Wynne Jones rewriting the Border Ballad—“Tam Lin”—though it runs a close second in my list with another wonderful Tam Lin reworking in Pamela Dean’s strange Minnesota university setting of the old Scottish poem. But Jones pips Dean’s at the post this time. Fire and Hemlock is a complex interweaving of two of the ballads, not only Tam Lin, but Thomas the Rhymer set in modern times. There two strong women battle for the soul of a man, and for his love, but in magic battles. Jones’ always perfect pitch voice resounds through the countryside of London and Bristol making everything magical in a way that makes believers of us all.

Jane Yolen is the 2017 Damon Knight Grand Master of SFWA, winner of two Nebulas for short stories, a World Fantasy Award, her book Owl Moon won a Caldecott, she is a New York Times bestseller for her children’s books. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. And she is a World Fantasy Association Grand Master , as well as a SFPA (Science Fiction Poetry Association.) Grand Master. In 2018, she will publish her 365 and 366th book, thereby making it possible to read a Jane Yolen book a day for a year—even if it’s a Leap Year. Her latest collection of fantasy short fiction is The Emerald Circus (Tachyon) which has both fantasy short stories and poems about fairy tales, fantasy authors and their works, and back matter about how she wrote the tales.

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Jane Yolen


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