Today’s Myth Tea: Bigelow Earl Grey. An old but reliable standby. (Also my Star Wars mug in honor of last Saturday’s post.)
So I’ve been known to say that “‘gritty’ fairytale retellings are weird.” And I stand by that, though that could be because one of the last retellings I read was not only weird but really not good. However, that is not to say that bloody fairytale retellings are weird – or, even if they are weird, that they can’t be awesome.
A Tale Dark & Grimm is probably found in the Middle Grade section in the library or bookstore, but it’s definitely a bit more gruesome than the usual MG fare. That’s kind of the point – to get back to the Grimm basics of limb loss, metamorphosis, and infanticide.
And the king replied, “What if I told you, dear queen, that there was a way to repay our debt to Johannes, and to bring him back to life, but that it was a terible way, and it would cost us everything that is most dear to us. What would you say?”
“Anything!” the queen cried. …
“Even if it meant killing our two children?” the king asked.
The premise of A Tale is that there’s a “one true story” running through the Grimm brothers’ stories (like a monomyth!), and the novel is it, with Hansel and Gretel as the protagonists of several of the Grimm tales. It’s a great premise and Gidwitz handles it really well. A Tale isn’t just some stories thrown together for the cool value; it’s a novel with an actual theme, drawing the chosen stories together with skill and precision.
And, you know, murder.
That evening, as the moon rose above the trees, Gretel said, “The moon sees us just as much as the sun. And he’s not so hot and terrible. Let’s go and ask him!” So they climbed the tallest tree and got as near as they dared to the moon. The moon wasn’t hot and terrible. Instead, he was cold and creepy. “Fee-fie-foe-fesh, I think I smell child-flesh!” he said.
I don’t want to give too much about A Tale away, because a lot of the entertainment comes from the surprises. One of the best things, IMHO, about fairytales is the bizarre turns they can take, the drastic changes and extreme measures characters respectively undergo and take. A Tale isn’t just a fairytale retelling, it’s a novel-length fairytale in its own right, and it takes every weird, magically senseless, physics-defying route that your average Grimm fairytale would. Child-eating moons, a magical locked mountain being unlocked with a chicken bone (or at least some kind of bone…), a visit to Hell and the Devil’s unexpected relative, prophetic talking ravens that pop up right when they’re needed – it’s all there, and more. It’s massively entertaining, with that quality of fairytales that feels both brutal and heavy as well as magical and light.
I think, especially in the beginning, that Gidwitz leans a little heavily on the THIS IS A DARK, BLOODY FAIRYTALE, NOT A LITTLE KID FAIRYTALE thing, probably too heavily. It feels like what I was talking about in that fairytale post, too much emphasis on being Edgy and not enough emphasis on telling a good story. But I’m happy to say that, though that wink-wink-nudge-nudge-edgy factor never goes away, it pops up less as the story progresses, and, when it does pop up, I’d say it’s pretty justified.
But my favorite thing about A Tale is that it’s heartfelt. Underneath the blood and murder and cannibalism, underneath the distant fairytale humor and sadness, there’s a deep emotionality in the characters and their development, and in the theme: the relationship between children and good parents, between children and bad parents, between children and adults in general. In examining these relationships through a fairytale lens, Gidwitz offers a mirror of reality that’s both grim (ha) and encouraging. Mistakes can be made, but forgiveness is possible (unless the mistake is cannibalism). Children can accomplish great things. Circumstances might be pretty bad and then get worse (there might be cannibalism involved) but they can always be fought through with bravery and sacrifice.
It’s pretty great for an MG novel about Hansel and Gretel.
You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.
And, of course, the most blood.