Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (6 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
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Why fairy tales? She was bitten by that bug early, having devoured

the Andrew Lang color fairy books as an impressionable girl.

It is why, when asked to give the Andrew Lang lecture in 2012, (past lecturers had included J. R. R. Tolkien, who gave the “On Fairie-Stories” lecture, as well as John Buchan!) she hesitated until told

that—as the twenty-second lecturer since 1927, she would be the

first woman to do so. At that point she signed on. They had to bring in about a hundred more seats as the hall filled up.

One of the things
Jane Yolen
enjoys doing is retelling a familiar story from the point of view of an unfamiliar narrator, and “The

Spindle’s Tale” is no exception. Here an innocent is coerced into doing an evil deed, and pays the price instead of the powerful enchanter.

One might wish to ask if this is meant as a political fable, but Yolen always says, “I tell the story. I leave commentary and exegesis to

academics and critics. And if you think I am being disingenuous,

then you don’t know me very well! As I wrote at the end of a recent

poem: ‘After the soldiers leave the field/Truth stays on, under its own banner.’ ”

• 51 •

The Spinning Wheel’s Tale

Jane Yolen

I worked all my life. Indeed, I worked for every hand that touched

me: spinning a thread, spinning a tale, spinning a life. Yet all I am remembered for in this kingdom is the one death that was spun of a

witch’s lies.

Blame her, not me, for the hundred years of devastation, the castle

waiting while sleep stole breath after breath. Blame her for hedges

run riot while gardeners dozed. Blame her for the loss of revenues,

avenues, a major highway becoming a byway, a byway a path.

But do not blame me. I only spun what I was held to, did what I

was told.

I was always a poor woman’s right hand, the small business base,

not something fit for palaces. Yet here I was brought, set into curse and tale. We who are the workers have no say in the production. It is an old story, but a true one.

I remember the acorn, the sprout, the single green leaf. But that

never features in this tale. The story begins with spinning, spinning the wheel, spinning the curse, spinning the lies that lie at the heart of a mouth, a castle, a hedge.

And of course it all begins with a witch.

Let us call her Malara. Or Maleficient. Or Maladroit. It is all the

same. She was jealous, of course, of her twelve sisters, of her position

• 53 •

• The Spinning Wheel’s Tale •

in the middle of their pack. Not the prettiest, not the fairest, not the smartest, not the sweetest, not the eldest, not the youngest. All those get special mention in any recounting. She was, so she liked to say, the median, the middle, the muddle, and the mess.

Well at least in this she was honest, if in nothing else.

Everything Malara put her hand to was a failure. A wish for a woman’s fecundity produced a litter of babes too small and too early to live, and a blasted womb thereafter. A wish for a garden to produce led straight to a proliferation of weeds the likes of which had never been known in the land. A wish for the early marriage of a prince turned into an early funeral as well. She did not have a good head for wishing.

But oh, how Malara could curse.

She could cause the dead to rise, pennies on their eyes, and a death rattle in their mouths that went zero to the bone.

She could curse a man to impotence, a cuckold to impudence.

She could curse a purse to poverty, a poet to prosody, a singer to a sore throat, and a hangman to his own noose. She could curse a king

to catastrophe, a princess to catatonia. She was herself the queen of curses.

No wonder she ceased to be invited to royal births, royal

christenings, royal engagements, royal weddings. Even funerals were

forbidden to her.

She was left with nothing—nothing to do, nothing to favor—and

that led to her to having everything to do with what happened ever


Her sisters tried an intervention, tried to teach her the lighter side of magic: how to cause the lame to dance, milk to spring from a

maiden’s breast. Tried to insert her as the muse in amusing histories.

But as with everything Malara did, things always turned to the worst.

And there it could have stood, with her sisters loving her and wishing to help. With them worrying over her, thinking she’d been damaged

somehow, that none of this was her fault.

• 54 •

• Jane Yolen •

But when at last they understood how much she reveled in her

talent for cursing, even her sisters left her alone.

And that is when she found me and made the last of her curses.

O acorn, that you never had known spring. O oak, that you never had

grown limbs. O limbs, that you never were sawn, planed, bended, and

bowed. O wheel, that you were never made.

Malara found me in a byre, set aside after a lifetime of use. Her

fingers started me awhirl again and I was pleased to be found useful.

She tested the spindle, and I was delighted to feel magic. She wound wool through all my parts, and I was thrilled to be spinning anew.

I thought her no more then a solitary crone, for so she presented

herself, as if touched by age, humped with it. We limped up to the

forbidden tower.

There was such a sense of wonder in her touch I ignored the

darkness in it. Stupid old oak.

There was warning in her songs. I thought them full of beauty.

Foolish acorn child.

I dreamed that I might be the one to spin straw into gold. Silly old wheel.

Instead of slowing my rotation, instead of tangling the yarn, I held my spindle upright. My wheel made many smooth turnings. I was

addled with work, in love with production.

I did not see the world coming to an end.

There was a knock on the door.

A girl fair as morning entered, the sun-gold in her hair all the

riches I was ever to see.

“Grandmother,” she said to the witch. “I am here for my lesson.”

Malara smiled and handed her the spindle.

It pierced her finger and all the world spun down.

So why is it I, not the witch, being put to the flame?


• 55 •

• The Spinning Wheel’s Tale •

Jane Yolen
, author of over eighty-five original fairy tales, and over 335 books, is often called the Hans Christian Andersen of America—

though she wonders (not entirely idly) whether she should really

be called the “Hans Jewish Andersen of America.” She has written

a lot of fairy tale poetry as well, and has been named both Grand

Master of the World Fantasy Convention and Grand Master of the

Science Fiction Poetry Association. She has won two Nebulas for her

short stories, and a bunch of other awards, including six honorary

doctorates. One of her awards, the Skylark, given by the New England Science Fiction Association, set her good coat on fire, a warning

about faunching after shiny things that she has not forgotten.


• 56 •

My lovely green-eyed Mother told me many traditional fairy

tales when I was an infant, following these up with her own


The influence of these can be seen in my children’s collection

Princess Hynchatti
) published in the 1970s but written by me in the 1960s. In these stories are such things as a prince who falls in love with the witch helping him to win the difficult, task-setting princess, and the prince who drives a swan nearly crazy by repeatedly kissing

it—wrongly—sure it is a princess under a spell . . .

Evidently such magical twists still obsess me.

Tanith Lee

• 59 •

• 60 •

Below the Sun Beneath

Tanith Lee


Life drove him into death, so it had seemed. It was the choice

between dying—or living and
death, to be corpse or corpse-maker. Perhaps Death’s own dilemma.

He had joined the army of the king because he was starving.

Three days without eating had sent him there; little other work that winter. And the war-camp was bursting with food; you could see it

from the road: oxen roasting over the big fire and loaves piled high and barrels of ale lined up, all a lush tapestry of red and brown and golden plenty, down in the trampled, white-snowed valley. He had

fought his first battle with a full belly, and survived to fill it again and again.

Five years after that. And then another five. Roughly every sixth

year, the urge came in him to do something else. But he had mislaid

family, and even love. Had given up himself and found this other

man that now he had become: Yannis the soldier.

And five years more. And
five . . .

The horse kicked and fell on him just as the nineteenth year was

turning towards the twentieth. Poor creature, shot with an arrow it

was dying, going down, the kick one last instinctive protest, maybe.

But the blow, and the collapsing weight smashed the lower bones

in his right leg, and he lost it up to the knee. All but its spirit, which still ached him inside the wooden stump. Yet what more could he

• 61 •

• Below the Sun Beneath •

expect? He had put himself in the way of violences, and so finally

received them.

The army paid him off.

The coins, red and brown, but
golden, lasted two months.

By the maturing of a new winter he was alone again, unemployed

and wandering, and for three days he had not eaten anything but


Yannis heard the strange rumour at the inn by the forest’s edge. The innwife had taken pity on him. “My brother lost a leg like you. Proper old cripple he is now,” she had cheerily announced. Yet she gave

Yannis a meal and a tin cup of beer. There was a fire as well, and not much custom that evening. “Sleep on a bench, if you want. But best

get off before sun-up. My husband’s back tomorrow and if he catches

you, we’ll both get the side of his fist.”

As the cold moon rose and the frosts dropped from it like chains

to bind the earth, Yannis heard wolves howling along the black

avenues of the pine trees.

He dozed later, but then a group of men came in, travellers, he

thought. He listened perforce to their talk, making out he could not hear, in case.

“It would seem he’s scared sick of them, afraid to
. Even to pry.”

“That’s crazy talk. How
he be? He’s a
. And what are they?

A bunch of girls. No. There’s more to it than that.”

“Well, Clever Cap, it’s what they say in the town market. And not

even that open with it either. He wants to
, but won’t take it on himself. Wants some daft clod to do it for him.”

Yannis, as they fell silent again, willed himself asleep. In the

morning, he had to get off fast.

A track ran to the town. On foot and disabled, it took him until noon.

The place was as he had expected, huts and hovel-houses and the

only stone buildings crowded round the square with the well, as if

they had been herded there for safety. Even so, at his third attempt

• 62 •

• Tanith Lee •

he got a day’s work hauling stacks of kindling. He slept that night

in a barn behind the priest’s house. At sunrise he heard the priest’s servants gossiping.

“It’s Women’s Magic. That’s why he’s afeared.”

“But he’s a

“Won’t matter. Our Master’ll tell you. Some women still keep to

the bad old ways. Worse in the city. They’re
there. Too clever to be Godly.”

Beyond the town was another track. At last an ill-made and

raddled road.

He knew by then the city was many more miles of walking-

limping. And all the wolfwood round him and, after sundown, as he

crouched by his makeshift fire, the wolves sang their moon-drunk

songs to the freezing sky.

On the third day, a magical number he had once or twice been told,

he met the old woman. She was out gathering twigs that she threw

in a sack over her shoulder, and various plants and wildfruits that

she put carefully in a basket in her left hand. Sometimes he noted, as he walked towards her along the path, she changed the basket to her

right hand and picked with the left. She was a witch, then, perhaps

even knew something about healing. There had been a woman he

encountered like that, before, who brewed a drink that stopped his

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
7.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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