For some months, now, I’ve been reading a tale a day from Jack Zipes’ translation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, only having known the more famous ones till now. And they’re a mixed bunch. As well as the very fairy-tale-like stories of princes transformed into foxes or frogs, brothers turned into swans, princesses setting three impossible tasks for their suitors, or that overlooked third brother winning through despite everyone thinking he’s a clod, there are plenty of duds: shaggy-dog jokes about stupid people (“Clever Hans”, “Clever Else”, “The Brave Little Tailor”) or the (once, no doubt very funny, not-so now) misadventures of odd collections of companions (“The Straw, the Coal and the Bean”, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage”), as well as some of the more traditional kind of tale that don’t quite satisfy as much as the well-known ones do.
Reading these lesser tales, where the shortcomings of the story are often made up for by an appeal to the listeners’ baser nature, you get a sense of their pulpy, lowest-common-denominator approach: silly jokes about talking sausages and stupid people on the one hand, lashings of revenge on the other. It’s not saying anything new to note how gleeful fairy tales can be in not just righting wrongs, but in getting a downright over-the-top bloody revenge into the bargain:
“The evil mother was brought before the court and put into a barrel that was filled with boiling oil and poisonous snakes. Indeed, she died a horrible death.”
“‘The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel studded with nails on the inside,’ said the old woman. ‘And then he should be rolled down the hill into the water.’”
“‘She deserves nothing better… than to be stripped completely naked and put inside a barrel studded with sharp nails. Then two white horses should be harnessed to the barrel and made to drag her through the streets until she’s dead.’”
…being just three examples. Cinderella may win your sympathy by being forced to drudge for her nasty step-sisters, but some fairy tale heroes and heroines have very little going for them, morally or empathetically, yet the stories only work if you’re rooting for them to lord it over everyone by the end — and not just their oppressors, but often their oppressor’s entirely innocent children, too.
The Cold Flame, published in 1967, is James Reeves’ retelling of “The Blue Light” from the Grimms’ book of fairy tales — certainly not one of the more famous ones, but not entirely a dud, either. The protagonist is (unusually, for these mostly coming-of-age tales) a long-serving soldier, dismissed after twenty-five years in the King’s service (“Five-and-twenty years, five-and-twenty wounds”) with only a silver dollar in pay. He falls into the hands of witch, who makes him drudge for a couple of days, then sends him down a well to fetch a cold, blue, obviously magical light she dropped there. He refuses to hand it over till she’s helped him from the well, so she lets him fall back down to the bottom. Deciding to smoke one final time before he dies of starvation, the soldier lights his pipe with the blue light and thereby summons a little demon, who offers to do anything he demands. And so the soldier gets out of the well, is provided with riches, returns to the city where he was dismissed so off-handedly, and sets about getting his revenge by summoning the King’s daughter each night to clean up his room. He’s caught (on the third night, of course) and arrested, but thanks to his little demon turns the situation round, and by the end is not only king himself but getting inviting looks from the princess.
Perhaps it’s because the main character isn’t such an innocent as Cinderella or Snow White, but although the wrong to him is genuine (dismissed after twenty-five years with only enough pay to buy a single meal), having the tale expanded from short story to short novel only seems to emphasise how unfair it is that the king’s daughter — entirely innocent, as far as I can see — should be dragged into her father’s punishment. It seems even stranger in Reeves’ retelling, because he makes it clear that, for some reason, after being forced to drudge for him, she’s fallen in love with this raddled old soldier, whose only redeeming feature (as in so many fairy tales) is the fact he’s had the good luck to gain magical aid. But perhaps it’s just that, by being faithful to the rather uncompromising spirit of the Grimms’ version, Reeves has retained the essential character of the original, without pandering to any sensitive morals on my part. Anyway, it’s very well-written, if a bit distant from its rather bleak-souled characters. (The soldier is described as having an “almost habitual sardonic self-control”, and a “dedication to the virtue of despair.”)
One of the things that attracted me to the book wasn’t the story, but the illustrations. I think I must have come across Charles Keeping’s work first in Alan Garner’s Elidor. He mixes a sparse, telling line with a sort of random, squiggly-blotchy wildness that somehow works, and somehow fits these late 1960s/early 1970s books with their rather modernistic bleakness and understated, though deeply-felt, deeply-tried humanity — Reeves’, and Garner’s, and, I think, they’d suit the two William Mayne books I’ve reviewed recently, too.
Here are some examples of his work on The Cold Flame: