Fairness, Power, and Happily Ever After, by Molly Saunders
Librarian Molly Saunders seeks the fairy tales of her youth, not to escape reality, but rather to make sense of it. This post is part of 805’s “My Home Library” blog series that features posts by writers and artists enjoying their home libraries during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 805 is published by the Manatee County Public Library System, and since most libraries have closed due to the pandemic, we hope this blog series will help people show off their home libraries, find comfort in books, and feel a connection to the library during this difficult time.
Last July, when I moved my whole life to Florida in my little turquoise Honda Fit, it became very clear that I would have to make drastic cuts to my home library. Although the friends who helped me move would assure you that I still have plenty of books, I donated boxes and boxes of book-friends, old and new. I sorted into categories, ruthlessly culled duplicates, tried to intuit which ones most “sparked joy”—it was a process. But the one category I refused to touch was my prized collection of fairy tale anthologies.
Whether illustrated treasuries from childhood, German language collections from my time living in Austria, or academic editions gathered in grad school, my fairy tales were coming along to the next stage of my life. These European stories, ostensibly intended to enchant and edify children, but equally to codify the particular moral codes of their tellers, are imprinted on my brain and in my heart. They are the first stories I learned as a child, and I have sought them again and again throughout my life.
The long-ago, far-away world evoked by these fairy tales is a harsh and beautiful place of consequences: actions that are good or evil, followed directly by appropriate punishments or rewards. It was that clarity that appealed to me as a child, growing up in an environment that often felt chaotic and unfair. In fairy tales, as gruesome as they can be, the rules made sense.
The evil queen hurts Snow White, and is hurt in turn. Cinderella shows kindness and grace
under trial, and is recognized and rewarded. G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1908, “If you really read the fairy-tales, you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of nursery-tales.” For better or for worse, I internalized this fairy tale world model as good and true, a place where, if you know the rules, you can control your fate. It was what I hoped for, if not what I saw reflected in my own life.
Over the past months, as the world has seemed more unfair and uncertain than ever, I have been drawn back into the world of fairy tales, familiar and comforting in its crystalline certainty. But as I have revisited the keystone tales in these anthologies, I have also returned a few of my favorite children’s books, which are all spun from the European fairy tale tradition, but expand it, bringing that long-ago ethos a little closer to our times.
These books are particularly dear to me for how they take fairy tales’ rigid rules as their framework, and joyfully massage them apart, creating space for their female protagonists to attain agency and empowerment. Eva Ibbotson’s Which Witch? (1979), Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle (1986), Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons (1990) and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men (2003) are a perfect sampling of such novels, books that I have always loved, but find special comfort in now.
The heroines of these stories live in versions of the classic European fairy tale world, peopled with witches, dragons, princesses, and demons. But although they know the rules of their worlds, their success is not preordained. Their control comes not from blindly following the path, but from subverting it, creating a sideways and in-between space of power that makes fairy tale rules work for them. Rather than fearing that a dragon will snatch her away, Princess Cimorene of Dealing with Dragons seeks one out and negotiates a position as a librarian and chef, preferring dragon employment to marrying a prince of her family’s choosing. She is a dragon’s princess, yes, but one who does not want to be rescued.
Sophie Hatter, in Howl’s Moving Castle, finds herself cursed with old age by an evil witch. But though her quest to find her fortune and break the curse brings her into contact with wizards and wishes and a powerful fire demon, the magical powers that ultimately save her are her own, powers that she only recognizes and develops through her role as an old crone. Similarly, Belladonna, the most disappointingly good witch of her coven in Which Witch? wins a contest of dark magic, not by forcing herself to be evil, but by forming friendships and transforming her community. She doesn’t break the rules, exactly, but shifts them, makes them work for her.
Finally, Tiffany Aching, the eleven-year-old cheese-maker and aspiring witch of The Wee Free Men, saves her brother from the evil queen of the fairies armed only with a frying pan. She survives through her sheer determination and her knowledge of the rules of fairy, but her real power comes from her clear-sighted ability to ask the right questions, to see people for who they really are.
In all of these contemporary classics, girls and women use the magic of fairy tales for their own empowerment, to take their just rewards for themselves. These novels still celebrate that clear and cruel fairy tale world, but they prod and reveal and broaden the definition of success and “happily ever after” for their characters. If traditional fairy tales are comforting to me in times of uncertainty, these books are even more so. They show me a just world, in which goodness is recognized and evil punished, but the power for that “reckoning” (as Tiffany Aching would call it) comes not from arbitrary rules, but from the deliberate actions of people.
No matter how old I get, how many times I move, or how much I whittle down my home library, I will keep these books to remember the world that I most believe in—one where we make our own happy endings.
Molly Saunders is the teen librarian at the Braden River Library. She hails from Birmingham, Alabama, and holds an M.S. in Library and Information Science and an M.A. in Children’s Literature from Simmons University. Molly believes that the best tales are the ones you make happen for yourself.