cover image The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales

Edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. Saga, $24.99 (392p) ISBN 978-1-4814-5612-8

Reviewed by Veronica Schanoes

Drawing on the mythical Old West, familiar European stories, and recently translated Middle Eastern tales, these stories provide a rich sample of what awaits us in the world of fairy tales. Like many anthologies, it is something of a mixed bag, but the standout stories are well worth making time to read.

These include a couple of highly literary and unusual stories based on tales from two volumes that became available in English only in the past few years: Genevieve Valentine’s “Familiaris” is based on “The Wolves,” collected by Franz Xaver von Schonworth and published in The Turnip Princess, and Sofia Samatar’s “Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” reflects on a story from the Arabic Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange. Valentine’s and Samatar’s stories distinguish themselves in their multilayered reflections on the dynamics of telling tales. “Why are you people so hungry for marvels?” Samatar’s narrator asks, while drawing our attention to the marvels and horrors we take for granted around us. Valentine dramatizes as part of her story the interaction between Schonworth and his unnamed female storyteller in a world where women’s choices are sharply abridged.

Also excellent are Amal El-Mohtar’s “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” which explores the power of women’s friendships to rewrite—or at least expose—misogynist ideologies, and Catherynne M. Valente’s “Bad Girl, the Deadman, and the Wheel of Fortune,” which rewrites one of the most disturbing of the traditional European fairy tales, “The Armless Maiden.” Valente’s protagonist is a canny but terrified child, reminding us that “happily ever after” comes only after experiences we would never wish on someone so young.

The anthology ends with Naomi Novik’s “Spinning Silver,” in which Novik confronts the anti-Semitism that Jane Yolen and others have found latent in the Grimms’ version of “Rumplestiltzkin,” rewriting it into a tale of Jewish heroism in the face of hostility from gentile neighbors as well as magical threats from fairy folk. Novik’s ability to weave together sympathy for the story’s traditional antagonist, the little man who can produce gold on a whim, and traditional heroine, the daughter who is forced to produce in order to save herself and her father, by combining them in the person of her protagonist, Miryem, makes this story a virtuoso turn.

Of course, no anthology is perfect, and some stories do not meet the high standards set by the ones I mention above. Similarly, Parisien and Wolfe’s introduction falls flat; though short, it rambles, and it fails to discuss the book’s relationship to the many volumes of fairy tale stories that have gone before. Nonetheless, the wide range of tales, settings, and perspectives sampled here demonstrate that fairy tales remain a rich source for writers, one that we have only begun to tap.

Veronica Schanoes is a writer and an associate professor in the department of English at Queens College, CUNY, where she specializes in fairy tales and children’s literature.