The beast. The wolf. The frog prince. Compliments of the popular tales so many of us grew up with, certain animal characters are well known, instantly recognized by a one or two word descriptive and connected to a familiar plotline. But beyond them is a menagerie of fascinating other “creatures that walk, fly, leap, slither, and swim through fairy-tale history.” So for their latest book collaboration, scholars Jennifer Schacker and Christine Jones, modern day fairy godmothers to the tales they study, have put together a collection of vintage stories featuring 10 lesser-known fairy-tale beasts just waiting to be discovered.
Declared “a masterpiece” by Kay Stone, author and emeritus professor of English, University of Winnipeg, Feathers, Paws, Fins, and Claws: Fairy-Tale Beasts includes ten stories carefully chosen by Schacker and Jones from a group of historic narratives (representing several centuries and cultural perspectives) that feature animals both wild and gentle, animals Stone says “challenge us to reconsider our stereotypical images of fairy-tale beasts.” They appear in imaginative landscapes, sometimes in comical ways, and enjoy a host of surprising talents: rats are just as seductive as Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf; snakes find human mates; and dancing sheep and well-mannered bears blur the line between human and beast.
Schacker and Jones, leaders among the new generation of academics studying the fairy-tale genre, were committed to showcasing the tales they selected as closely as possible to the earliest print versions, which are rich in a host of adult themes, and not specifically geared toward children (that’s a relatively recent development). Of the ten tales, seven are translations from other languages, and all but one of those translations are over one hundred years old.
“Every fairy-tale text leaves open the possibility of innumerable other versions, told and waiting to be told by innumerable creative story-tellers.”
Take for example “The Story Of the Three Bears,” which is featured in Feathers, Paws, Fins, and Claws. It’s dramatically different than the tale modern children’s literature tells us. The story was first published by British Romantic poet Robert Southey in 1834, and continued to be printed throughout the nineteenth century. The version Schacker and Jones included (from Joseph Jacobs’s 1890 English Fairy Tales) features an old woman with nasty habits and disregard for others’ property, not the fair-haired young sweetheart named Goldilocks we all know. The vagrant invades the bears’ house, leaving chaos and destruction in her wake. The editors point out that the earlier story operates not as the lesson in behavior and etiquette for kids that modern readers expect, but as a rather “unruly, transgressive, and broadly humorous” read. It leaves you wondering… “So, who exactly is the wild animal in this fairy tale?”
Then there’s the Norwegian tale known in English as “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon,” which was collected from oral tradition by folklorists and became popular in Victorian England when translated in 1859. It features an immensely powerful polar bear able to offer great wealth to a poor family – in exchange for a human bride. The editors note, “In some ways this story resonates with the better-known ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and certainly blurs the lines between beauty and beastliness.” But what’s most notable is that it also casts its heroine in an actively heroic role: “only she can save her beloved, and to do so she must mobilize a combination of courage, wit, physical fortitude, natural forces, and magical objects associated with traditional womanhood…” [WYSK Editor’s Note: we’re already sold on this story and nominate Jennifer and Christine to consult on the animated, big screen version of this tale… so Disney can’t go and ruin it!]
To guide readers of all ages through the importance of history, translation, and interpretation when it comes to reading fairy tales, Schacker and Jones preface each of the 10 vintage stories with a short introduction that offers context and straightforward insights from their scholarly investigations.
Tale illustrations for “The Rat’s Wedding,” “Nanina’s Sheep,” and “Prince Chéri” (click to enlarge)
To bring their collection to life, Schacker and Jones worked with Belgian artist Lina Kusaite to illustrate each of the offbeat tales. Of her stunning contributions to the book, the editors write in their introduction, “The illustrations certainly serve to beautify the book, but more than that they represent concrete examples of how creative interpretation can make us think very differently about stories that could appear facile or (on the surface) easily understood.”
If we’ve learned anything from covering the work of Schacker and Jones (here and here) over the last few years, it’s that there is so much more to fairy tales than we think… they are complex, and they are open to endless reinterpretation. So with Feathers, Paws, Fins, and Claws: Fairy-Tale Beaststhe co-editors’ goal is to invite a broad range of responses, in the spirit of fairy-tale history itself. “We welcome the reader to enter this bestiary and discover how these particular animals look and operate, to let these older fairy tales work on our modern imaginations now.”
**UPDATE: If you’re interested in “Feathers, Paws, Fins, and Claws: Fairy-Tale Beasts,” the book publisher is now offering a special holiday deal**
Lina Kusaite is an illustrator, designer, and art/life coach based in Brussels, Belgium. Her work has appeared in a wide range of international publications, computer games, and exhibitions, and was selected for display in Times Square as part of the see.me 2014 “seemetakeover” event. Check out more of her work here.