Monday, June 20, 2011

What Diana Wynne Jones Meant to Me


If you want to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. You may have even wanted to write because of the books you read and enjoyed; this happened to me after reading Harriet the Spy, but I digress.

I deeply regret that I did not discover Diana Wynne Jones until middle school, when I found a copy of Seeing is Believing in the library and picked it up for its title. When you have stories where a girl with mumps creates a story with a bloodthirsty heroine that comes to life, a writer who finds success after getting a computer (and the customary typos), and the story of a cat who helps a stupid magician's servant, you have no choice but to find the rest of the authors' books. I discovered A Charmed Life, Dogsbody, The Homeward Bounders, and proceeded to read every book by her in both the school and public library.

Diana Wynne Jones taught me that anything can be magical, whether it's the green flakes in a chemistry kit or a Friendly Cow. She also taught me Murphy's Law for fantasy novels: anything that can go wrong with magic will, and the disasters will make you laugh. Wizards do not always appreciate people cleaning their houses for that, and they are not necessarily elderly, well-behaved gentlemen; sometimes they are angry fathers pretending to be evil magicians. Heroes won't always know who's in trouble, or how to correct their spells; sometimes you might break your neck twice and still live. Use every implement that you introduce, since golden bricks may be useful to drop on the villain's toes.
Villains can be hidden in plain sight; your parents may not be the villains, but they are certainly no help when push comes to shove. Kids have to rely on their own magical objects and abilities, even if they didn't know that they have abilities. Don't underestimate a pit of orange juice or a cocoon of bookcases if your college roommate is targeted by assassins. Also don't underestimate the insults that brothers can exchange after one decides to attend university.

Most of all, there are no formulas to follow. Jones admired Tolkien's work, but she came to mock the sword and sorcery fantasy that succeeded Lord of the Rings; that fact made me admire her the most. For the record, I tried reading Lord of the Rings twice, and I learned that there is such a thing as too much description. Not all villains are pure evil, and you shouldn't have to travel alone. There is more than one way to solve a problem, especially if you are creative; there is no need to slay dragons with swords when a hot chili pepper will do.

Rest in peace, Diana, and thank you for your writing.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reverence for Fairy Tales

To get psyched for revising the last three chapters of this fantasy novel that is a tribute to fairy tales and Daphne du Maurier, I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales from cover to cover. The edition also came with a helpful list of footnotes denoting the different version of each tale, as well as possible sources, but my real point when reading was something that every adult realizes when reading fifty to sixty short stories meant for children’s bedtime:

Most are completely ridiculous!

As mentioned in my last entry, Sarah Beth Durst has written several blog posts going through certain stories line by line and commenting on how good, bad, or horrific they were. Ms. Durst read these stories for her novel Into the Wild, in which real people have to act out fairy tales for centuries if they get caught in the titular plant growth. When the Wild gets loose, Rapunzel’s daughter Julie has to work fast to tame it before it takes over her hometown. When it gets loose again in Out of the Wild, Julie has to worry about the same problem while traveling across the US on a broomstick.

Popular culture has also caught onto the trend of mocking the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christen Andersen; Dreamworks gave us the Shrek movies, while Disney attempted a self-parody with Enchanted. Even Gail Carson Levine, whose novel Ella Enchanted was critically acclaimed and heart rendering, wrote several short novellas that parodied “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Princess and the Pea.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Ms. Durst wrote Ice, a gorgeous retelling of “The Sun, the Moon, and the North Wind” set in the Arctic Circle with polar bears, shamans, and creepy deities. Juliet Marillier gave us Wildwood Dancing, which makes “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” look sugary sweet in comparison; I would not have read it if my friend Margaret had not recommended Ms. Marillier. (Thanks, Margaret!) Walt Disney Corporation managed to infuse some of the most ridiculous tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella” with lovable characters, monstrous villains, humor, and princess protagonists that did not annoy the viewer in the least.

There is a reason, however, why we feel drawn to fairy tales, whether or not we parody them or depict them in a somber light; I feel drawn to them because fairy tales were my security blanket. Azar Nafisi admitted the same thing in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: fairy tales may have happy endings, but they also have pretty monstrous obstacles. Such a structure is reflected in the best stories, whether they are complex novels or simple cartoon shorts; readers like conflict, and they like giant monsters that can be defeated.

“Cinderella,” for example, has a stepmother and two stepsisters who will do anything to keep their ash girl from being normal; the Disney version takes that dynamic to the extreme. The two girls blame Cinderella for things that go wrong, load her with work so she can’t get ready for the king’s ball, and finally rip up her handmade ball gown. The stepmother then proceeds to sabotage Cinderella’s chance of trying on the glass slipper by locking her in her room and making the slipper shatter just as she’s about to try it on. It doesn’t help that she has the scariest voice in history, and she’s pretty much what every teenage girl would not want to have: an unloving authority figure who will never give you power. On top of that, Cinderella’s father died when she was just a little girl; that is traumatic for any child, especially when the surviving parent is not sympathetic.

Most fairy tales thus, in addition to providing such an obstacle like a deal with the Devil or a toady innkeeper who keeps stealing his customers’ magical tools, add a happy ending and helpful friends to deal with the monstrous quality. Sometimes this can play for dark humor; about three or four Grimm’s fairy tales involve the hero causing an apocalypse that leaves him the sole ruler of a kingdom (seriously). Others involve the Devil getting cheated, but the hero is not allowed to enter heaven either, so they wander between heaven and hell as a restless ghost. Please note that this happens when the hero is a guy, not a girl; the girl usually marries a prince who rescues her from burning at the stake or an unhappy life with her stepsisters. The king in these stories tends to execute the stepmother and stepsisters in violent manners, so the blood and gore is still presented.

The other reverence for fairy tales that we find is that they can be easily retold, as I’ve shown with the above examples, while keeping the monstrous obstacles and happy ending. We can take out the parts we don’t like, such as Cinderella’s fairy godmother (please stop making fairy godmothers evil), and modify it to suit our needs, as Disney has done. That Grimm’s Fairytales still exists is living proof that even if we don’t like princes who kill everyone to become happy, we do like it when characters receive happy endings after traumatic experiences. We simply change the rules as we go along.