"And they all lived happily ever after..." has been for generations of children the unquestioned ending to all fairy stories. The poor, downtrodden, but good, step-daughter wins out in the end while the evil step-sisters and mother get what's coming to them, or the bewitched princess is rescued from some horrible enchantment by her knight in shinning armour, and they all live happily ever after. Except of course the evil step-sisters, the ogre, the giant, the troll, the dragon, or the witch who had the nerve to try and mess with them.
They either come to a rather sticky end or simply vanish from the story never to be heard from again and nobody gives them a second thought. In the black and white reality of fairy tales there is no room for questioning the why's and wherefores of what makes a person do what they do; they are either evil or good with nothing in between. While this world of absolutes might appeal to some people, haven't you ever secretly hoped that the giant might one day catch that interfering Jack as he's stealing all his possessions? Or that Prince Charming would at least fall off his white horse into a mud puddle so he wasn't so damned pure of heart and innocent of evil influence?
If your mind has ever run in those directions, than you're sure to enjoy the collection of stories gathered together by the editing team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, in their new anthology, Troll's Eye View. Being released on April 21/09 by Penguin Canada, it has some of today's best fantasy writers revisiting those old fairy tales, but this time telling them from the so called villains point of view. Ostensibly written for a younger audience, the book's fly-leaf says for readers ten and up, the stories will delight anyone who has never been quite satisfied with the simplicity of "happily ever after".
The great thing about a Datlow and Windling anthology is their ability to come up with a theme that is sure to inspire a writer's imagination. While they've a history of putting together collections of revised version of fairy tales and other fantastical stories for both adults and children, Troll's Eye View offered those contributing a chance to turn some old favourites inside out. So we get everything from an updated version of Rapunzel, "An Unwelcome Guest" by Garth Nix; hearing the other side of the story, "Up The Down Beanstalk: A Wife Remembers" by Peter S. Beagle; to an examination of the whole step-sibling dynamic in "The Cinderella Game" by Kelly Link.
Some of the stories gathered in this book are based on tales you may not be familiar with, while others nearly everyone has heard of. While a few of the offerings come in the form of poems, which younger readers might initially find a little less approachable than the prose selections, they aren't any more difficult to understand than the other tales recounted in the book. In fact Joseph Stanton's "Puss in Boot, the Sequel" is only ten lines long, and manages to capture everything you need to know about Puss's character to change the ending of the original story completely. While technically it's not a case of the bad guy winning out in the end, let's just say that Puss end's up with more than his share of cream this time round then he did in the original.
While Stanton's poem, and the verse contributions of Wendy Froud and Neil Gaiman are fine, it's still the prose stories that are the true delight of this book. While some of them do what we expect of a story like this and tarnish the image of some past hero or heroine, others have eschewed that approach for something slightly more complex. For instead of merely offering a comedic alternative to the original, they stay true to the "Grimm" details, but show them from a new perspective.
In particular, Catherynne M. Valente's take on "Hansel & Gretel", "A Delicate Architecture", is especially intriguing in the way it creates a highly imaginative explanation for how the gingerbread house in the middle of the forest came into being in the first place. Valente has created a beautifully haunting tale explaining how the "witch" came to be living in the woods that's as fantastic and magical as any of the classic fairy stories. What's truly wonderful is the way in she's able to make her into a genuinely sympathetic character until we realize which story we've ended up in. For it's not until the last few pages that Valente reveals who the story has been about, and what she's planning on doing.
In their introduction to the book Datlow and Windling say they wanted the writers to examine the villains of the old fairy stories. What's the truth behind the stories of all those evil characters and were the heroes and heroines really as noble as they were originally made out to be? What makes the results so intriguing is the variety of ways in which the authors contributing to this anthology have come up with to answer those questions. However, in spite of their different approaches, one thing all of the authors have in common is their love for the original material and the genre. For no matter how they've chosen to retell their story, they never once lose track of what made them such great stories to begin with.
While it's easy to spoof something in order to make fun of it or run it down, it's infinitely harder to rewrite a story in such a way that it brings new appreciation for the original. Troll's Eye View is not only highly entertaining in its own right, but it also reminds the reader what made fairy tales so wonderful to begin with.
(Originally posted April 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.