Black Thorn, White Rose

Black Thorn, White Rose ed. by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling


This intriguing collection of fairy tales retold by contemporary authors is the second in a series of six published by World Fantasy Award-winners Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Although the stories in the book express a wide range of literary styles, they are all adaptations of traditional tales written with an adult audience in mind. The purpose of this collection, and the other five volumes in the series, is to take the fairy tale out of the nursery and place it back in the broader literary imagination where it belongs. In the introduction to the book, Datlow and Windling write:

These tales, which we now think of as children’s stories, were not meant in centuries past for children’s ears only—or indeed, in some cases, for children’s ears at all. Only in the last century have the complex, dark, sensual, or bawdy tales of the oral folk tradition been collected, edited, set down in print in the watered-down forms we are most familiar with today: filled with square-jawed princes and passive princesses and endings that are inevitably “‘happy ever after.”

The stories chosen by Datlow and Windling all attempt to return to what was dynamic in the original versions of the tales—whether by complicating the staid conventions that have rendered the stories lifeless in our modern era or by re-imagining motifs from the old tales in a particularly unique and compelling way.  In this volume, the stereotypes are stripped away and what we find underneath is darker, more complex, more vivid, and much more compelling. Conventions are flipped on their heads: women gain autonomy, men show vulnerability, and villains and heroes are often difficult to distinguish. My favorite stories in the collection were the ones that subverted and challenged the traditional modes while maintaining the imaginative power of the original archetypes.

Here are my recommendations for which tales not to miss:

Somnus’s Fair Maid by Ann Downer

A re-telling of Sleeping Beauty set in Regency England with a refreshingly self-possessed and independent heroine who falls in love with an unfashionable scholar of Egyptian hieroglyphics (he puts all the ladies in a tither with the scarab beetle pin he wears at his throat). In this delightful twist on the classic tale, the lady saves herself from her plight, and it’s the man who turns out to be Sleeping Beauty, who she must cure with a kiss.

The Brown Bear of Norway by Isabel Cole

It says in this story’s introduction that it is a re-telling of a Scandinavian “animal bridegroom” tale but it also reminded me of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. This story to me was the highlight of the collection—it was evocative, strange and lovely, taking the traditional tale and setting it in the contemporary landscape of New York City with a fifteen year old girl as the narrator who forms a relationship with a Norwegian pen pal, but who she discovers is much more than a regular boy.

Tattercoats by Midori Snyder

This story takes a motif from several classic tales and re-imagines it in a wonderfully creative way to tell the story of a husband and wife who have begun to grow apart in their marriage. I am usually not one to sing the praises of a hetero-normative tale of love but this story succeeded in presenting an accurate and moving portrait of one couple’s journey of rediscovering one another. Erotic and extremely sensual.

Sweet Bruising Skin by Storm Constantine

A dark and delightfully creepy re-telling of The Princess and the Pea. I never imagined this story could be so disturbing. It puts pressure on the stereotype of the perfect princess we have grown accustomed to in traditional fairy tales—with pale, unblemished skin, waist-length hair and a willing disposition—and presents a chilling critique of the submissive wife. My favorite character was unquestionably the queen’s serpentine necromancer who has an eerie penchant for collecting human bones. If Angela Carter had joined forces with Edgar Allan Poe, something like this story would have been the result.  Unsettling, imaginative and deliciously bizarre.

Although my favorites in the collection were by authors I’d never encountered, there were also stories by more well-known fantasy authors like Jane Yolen and Patricia C. Wrede. In addition to introducing me to some great new sci-fi/fantasy authors, there’s an excellent recommended reading list at the back of the volume divided into categories of fiction and poetry, non-fiction and what the authors call “Fairy Tale Source Collections”, which are places to find the original tales. There’s a lot in that list that caught my eye and it has pointed me toward some excellent future reading. Suffice it to say, I will certainly seek out another volume in this dazzling series.


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