Editor’s Note: How to Give Readers the Shivers

wanda1by Kate Bernheimer

Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.

Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!

Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.

Or have we?

Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:

Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in

May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.

I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.

Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.

I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)

Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.

Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.

The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.

Wanda gag056


Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the  2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.

Editor’s Note: Ancient Moments of Telling

Biologists reconstruct the descent histories of life forms on planet Earth as the tree of life, its dense trunks and branches leading from common ancestors to new species. Such phylogenetic relationships are not limited to biology. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani from the New University of Lisbon in Portugal applied the same analysis tools and techniques to storytelling.[1]  Using the catalogue of categorized written folklore in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Index, they “recorded the presence/absence of each [of] these tales […] in 50 Indo-European-speaking populations represented in the ATU Index” and traced along the resulting tree-like descent histories how these stories were transmitted.[2]

The vertically-transmitted story is passed down within a culture through cultural inheritance. After migration and time, the story might show up around the world, told in daughter languages that emerged out of the original language in which it was first told. A horizontally-transmitted story leaps across cultural and language boundaries to reach foreign audiences. Graça da Silva and Tehrani found evidence for stronger vertical than horizontal transmissions for many of the folk tales they studied. When “accounting for spatial relationships among linguistically related Indo-European groups,” many folktales seemed to have been rejected by adjacent cultures. Rejection by foreign cultures and missed opportunities to translate and adopt such stories that might have changed them significantly helped them to retain much of their original form.

Graça da Silva and Tehrani traced this remarkable retention of the basic story arc across hundreds and thousands of years and miles to glimpse—for a few stories—ancient origins in the oral traditions. They discovered that “The Smith and the Devil” fairy tale might have originated over 6000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Preserved in the phylogenetic relationships are ancient moments of telling: a blacksmith and their fictional story about the struggle to smelt copper and alloy, or other community members and their fictional stories about the blacksmith. After all, to pursue craft is isolating; to pursue work with metals is magical, powerful, dangerous, and thus perfect for gossip and exclusion and storytelling.[3]

Certainly the Devil is involved.[4] There’s the bargain—the smith’s soul for mastery over the new dark arts—and there’s the twist—the morally questionable smith beats the Devil at his own game—and there’s the implication that art, craft, technology, knowledge itself are both divine and damning. From roots to branches, it’s an implication that susurrates thousands of years later.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.


[1]Graça da Silva, Sara and Tehrani, Jamshid J. “Comparative phylogenetic analyses uncover the ancient roots of Indo-European folktales.” Royal Society Open Science. 3: 150645. 20 January 2016. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/3/1/150645>

[2] “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu>

[3] Monbiot, George. “The Smith and the Devil.” George Monbiot. 1 January 1994. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.monbiot.com/1994/01/01/smith-and-the-devil/>

[4]“330: The Smith Outwits the Devil.” Multilingual Folk Tale Database. Web. 31 March 2016. <http://www.mftd.org/index.php?action=atu&act=select&atu=330>

Editor’s Note: What Goes Up Does Not Come Down

nundaSo it flew up higher still—so high that the earth shone like one of the other stars.
‘How much of you will be left if you fall from here?’ asked the bird.
‘If I die, I die,’ said the boy, ‘but I will not leave you.’

The Swahili fairy tale, “The Nunda, Eater of People,” is the story of a boy and figs, and a sultan, and a bird. It also contains, perhaps, the most extreme of what Max Lüthi, preeminent fairy-tale scholar and critic, would call a “blind motif”: an element not made use of, narratively, once it is introduced. An element whose purpose is only disappear. Think of a protagonist and their two older brothers, who are never referred to after their introduction, and yet are not removed by the author—the blind motif is the anti-Chekhov’s gun, a red herring gone amok. In “The Nunda,” our protagonist holds onto the bird until it relents and offers one of its feathers; in an emergency, the boy can burn the feather, and the bird will rescue him.

At the moment of transaction, the story is only halfway done: the latter half revolves around a murderous cat and our protagonist’s mission to kill it, with no more mention of the feather. The story seems to laugh in the face of expectations, the call and response. The idea of what goes up must come down. We enter the realm of the dreaded vague: For all we know, the feather has fallen out of the youngest’s pocket, been blown by the wind into some forgotten corner of his abode. For all we know, the feather has been pickpocketed by a neighboring child and put beneath a pillow to be forgotten. For all we know, the feather is kept until the boy becomes an old man who has never saw reason to flee anything.

That we do not dwell on how this bird carries the boy into space is beautiful. That in the quote above the bird asks not about dying in the fall, but having only a remainder of a body, is beautiful. That none of this is explained is beautiful. Can we truly not accept a gun that does not fire by the curtain’s fall? Are we really that against the motif that blinds, or refuses to be congruous? The sultan was mentioned in the first sentence here and never did return. Was he missed, or was his being forgotten something better?

“The Nunda,” as with all stories, could have offered us an answer as to the boy and his feather, but isn’t it better that we can leave ourselves with just one of a thousand better visions? For all we know, the boy burns his feather a decade after killing the Nunda, and only because he feels like taking a wing-borne joyride over Nalubaale and all its freshwater, the source of the thing many others call the Nile.


This Editor’s Note was written by Fairy Tale Review Prose and Managing Editor and Tiny Donkey Editor Joel Hans.

Editor’s Note: This Notebook is a Shattered Jar

The notebook arrived a few months ago in a box of old things my mom sent from the house I grew up in. It was originally a gift from a high school sweetheart, filled with notes from friends about my talents and how much they appreciated me. It sounds, at first description, like the kind of thing that would fill me with nostalgia for my punkish teen years. But opening the notebook was excruciatingly awkward. The gift had been prompted by my low self-confidence and anxiety, which left me feeling like friends secretly despised me and regularly led them to actually despise me, after I confronted them for imagined transgressions. I didn’t even read the notes–I didn’t need to, I knew they were full of the same kind comments that had been used reassure me throughout my life (comments that I would not–or could not–believe). Instead, I tore those pages out and threw them away. The only thing that remains from the original gift is a Tolkien quote penned on the notebook’s inside cover:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate
And though I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

tumblr_nmuvzrd51g1rne95fo6_500I recently watched Song of the Sea, an animated film by Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon. The film’s villain is the owl-witch Macha, who turns mythical creatures–like faeries and giants–into stone to “save” them from negative emotions. She stores her own difficult emotions and memories in bottles and jars. Of course (spoiler alert!), Song of the Sea is about a brother and sister’s successful attempt to turn Macha back into the good witch she once was and release the enchanted creatures from their stone holds. They’re able to do so when a magical song–sung by the sister who is, it turns out, a selkie– causes Macha’s bottles and jars to break. Macha’s forced to swallow up the despair she’s been hiding from, and this swallowing allows the desired transformation to take place.

My notebook feels a little like one of Macha’s shattered jars–a ghost of the emotions it once contained. The Tolkien quote on the inside cover doesn’t let me forget what this notebook was originally for; neither does my anxiety, which I’m learning to manage but continue to live with. Yet, I am able to re-inscribe it, re-purpose it, fill it up with something new. I’ve been using it as my Tiny Donkey notebook–where I jot down to-do lists or take notes during our editorial meetings. It’s a fitting use for it, I think. Reading, studying and writing about fairy tales has become, for me, a wondrous obsession, the kind of thing that serves as a temporary respite from a self-doubting and anxious brain.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Wren Awry.

Editor’s Note: Magic Mirrors on Every Wall

Locations are connected by wormholes.

Ask Neil Postman, media theorist. As early as the 19th century, new communications technology and mass media collapsed the space between local and distant. Postman writes that after news from Washington, D.C. made its way to Baltimore along the first telegraph lines on May 25, 1844 to be printed in the Baltimore Patriot that same afternoon, “The paper concluded its report by noting: ‘…we are thus enabled to give our readers information from Washington up to two o’clock. This is indeed the annihilation of space.'”[1]

Ask Amber Case, cyber anthropologist. She explains the concept of a wormhole by telling about how her father taught her the shortest distance between two points on a piece of paper is only a straight line if she ignored how the paper could be folded so that the two points touched.[2] While writing her anthropology thesis on cellphones, she “realized that everyone was carrying around wormholes in their pockets. They weren’t physically transporting themselves; they were mentally transporting themselves. They would click on a button, and they would be connected as A to B immediately.”

Ask your magic mirror, that display you hang on the wall, hold in your hand, or hide your eyes behind. At your command, your TV, computer, gaming console, smartphone, tablet, heads-up display, and virtual reality gear mirror your mind, your voice, your avatar, and, eventually, a wholly-immersed you through wormholes that remap location and body instantaneously to the hybrid realities—destinations where the analog and physical real world merges with or vanishes into digital and virtual new worlds. These places are not limited to their sights and sounds but will soon engage every sense. With emerging technologies surrounding your person, upon your person, within your person, your skin is a new skin, like your tongue, like your nose and ears and eyes. In so many new worlds to explore with your wormhole-enhanced cyborg physiology, you may find a home, or the horror of an endless virtual. At every destination on every wall there will wait a magic mirror, this hall of mirrors, this labyrinth in which you arrive so easily but cannot be certain that you arrived where you wanted to go.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor Richard Leis.


[1] Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 1985, 2005. 66. Kindle.

[2] Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” TEDWomen 2010. Dec. 2010. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now>

Editor’s Note: Muon, the Castaway

μ−

The muon is our hero, a thing that begins with being cast away: a proton shimmies from deep space into our planet’s atmosphere, collides with one of anything, decays into a pion, which in turn decays into our muon. She is given two millionths of a second to explore this strange country we call Earth: were it not for the relativity of time—objects moving fastest experience time slowest (and she moves fast indeed)—our muon would decay well above our heads. She would become an electron and two neutrinos; no helper could reordain her old spin. Decay is more permanent than being magiked into a deer, into a raven. The pieces are harder to find, when they too decay: imagine a deer becoming eight rabbits becoming a hundred butterflies becoming a trillion muons.

600px-Muon_Decay.svgThen we have to ask what it is the muon means to accomplish here, because she is not going back home. One possibility is that by her transformation she transforms us: she might pass into our upturned palms, break apart one of our cytosines, alter our genetic happenstance. There’s a rumor that’s how some species, even ours, were made: the most kind muon mutation. Maybe instead of fearing her radiation, this thing we ordain her bremsstrahlung, we should embrace her: she could know a way to make us better.

This pilot who has survived a high-speed cartwheeling from the center of our galaxy or beyond inside the belly of a proton—let’s catch the muon as she falls. She is one in three million to survive the fall. So we should ordain her with speeches about our three lives of water and other such nonsense. We should make her feel at home. Let’s remember to hold out own palms. We could let her keep falling—what is a dozen feet of bedrock after galactic travel—but then she would be like people: purposeless, unsure, our palms turned to the sky, trying to hold a conversation with bones.


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Editor and Fairy Tale Review Managing Editor Joel Hans.

Editor’s Note: Baba Yaga’s Fiery Devices

The following is an excerpt from “Baba Yaga Burns Paris to the Ground,” which can be read in full at Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness.

In Russian stories, Baba Yaga is tougher on Russians than anyone else, and she lusts particularly for Russian blood. It’s suggested that she’s testing her fellow Russians, ensuring that they respect and deserve to live on Russian soil. The industrial revolution and three-thousand odd miles stand between Baba Yaga and the pétroleuses; they belong to different worlds. Still, I see similarities between Baba Yaga’s defense of Russia’s forests and the incendiaries’ defense of their sprawling city.

babacover-full

Baba Yaga has an array of magical objects: her house on chicken legs, her mortar and pestle ship, her one leg made of bone. All of these give her power and bring the stories that she stars in to life on the page. But what interests me most is Baba Yaga’s associations with fire. Her house is sometimes located across a river of flame and is ringed by lanterns made of human skulls. Her stove is her greatest threat, a place where characters believe they will be incinerated, although it as often resurrects life. Like Fitz Fitcher, Baba Yaga has the power to take life, but like the youngest sister, she can also put it back together again. Baba Yaga can even resurrect herself: in fact, she sometimes dies at the end of a story, only to turn up in yet another tale.

Baba Yaga is neither fairy godmother nor evil sorceress. She is something more ambiguous. She teaches those who come to her door essential survival skills. She teaches them when to be honest or to lie, when to obey or demand, to steal or stay. Baba Yaga doles out punishment, but she also doles out tough love. Why, then, the bad reputation? Perhaps she is called evil to remind the young that she is opposed to the Christian order of things, that she cares not for polite society. That even if she helps the hero, she is a wild woman and not to be trusted. If Baba Yaga builds incendiary devices to give to little girls, and Baba Yaga is good, doesn’t that mean the social order is at least a little bad?


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Founding Editor Wren Awry.

Image by Ben Passmore