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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Darker Side of Fairy Tales: Tender Morsels, from Ammy Belle

The Darker Side of Fairy Tales :
Review of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels

I once took a class on children’s literature in my undergrad. The first few classes were dedicated to nursery rhymes – and a literary example of the trope was Alice’s Adventures in the Underland. I have to admit, I was sceptical, but omce started, I began to see why Alice could be seen as a series of peice-meal nursery rhymes, rather then one cohesive story. It was an amazing analysis, and I thought to myself that staying in this nursery rhyme mode – where children burnt themselves while playing with matches, and dodos still existed – would be fun.
Then we turned to faery tales.
Oh yes, my lovelies, the original kind. The ones before the Grimm Brothers and Disney – the ones with crazy pirate husbands who killed all their wives, with helper birds that pecked out the eyes of the evil step sisters, and the ones where the comatose captive princess was raped by her prince.
Those kind.
The kind we’ve nearly forgotten about with our fairy princesses who lead charmed lives, and remaking where we put in talking animals and magical trees.
But something about these old fairy tales caught and held me, and I just paged through them all, eagerly anticipating the next story, rediscovering my old favourites with such unexpected twists that they seemed foreign to me now.
I looked around the fictional world for something that would evoke the same kinds of feelings. I stumbled on a few, and then, last Christmas, my eye caught on this cover:

The girl was just staring at me, all tragic and seemingly torn up. I was interested. I looked at the synopsis online and this is what I got:
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever — magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga's refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?
It was a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red – I recoignized it instantly! And it seemed to be a darker tale – so I put it on my Xmas wish list, and Boyrfiend was nice enough to track down a copy for me. I instantly consumed it, my heart thumping through the first bits and bleeding through a lot of it.
Because Lanagan did indeed make a dark fairy tale come to life: she took the original stories of Rose Red and Briar Rose – the light and dark girls who traipsed around their little world, talking to animals and reaching out, and she asked how they got there, and what the price was?
The story begins in a haystack, where a orphan girl, Annie, uses her magic on a dwarf boy, to allow him a glimpse into what she calls “his personal heaven”. He wants more of course, his whole life he’s been made fun of for being a “littlee” but she shoves him away and their part of the story pauses for bit.
What comes after it is devastating. We meet Liga, a fourteen year old girl with no mother, who lives with her sexually abusive father. She is very young in many respects, and has no idea what’s happening to her half the time – including when her father gets her pregnant and then forces abortions on her through the “mud workings” of the local witch. After her father dies through a fortuitous accident, Liga is left with a baby in her belly and a home that cannot protect her from the men of town. After giving birth, she lives alone, but soon boys from the village come to her and push her over the edge. After this episode, she tries to commit suicide, with her born baby, but is saved by what she calls The Moon Bab, who gives her two jewels she is to bury at her home. She does so, and when she wakes up the next day, she is in her own heaven – with all that entails for Liga. It is a world without harm, and without fear, though Liga continuously feels the fear of it. She gives birth to her second daughter in this heaven, and decides to stay there, not for a respite, but forever.
There are predominantly three things I want to mention about this book: (1) the Female Centre-ness of it; (2) The only first person P.O.V. is male; and (3) Why this works as a fairy tale.
First of all, this is a very woman-centric book. Even though none of the women have a first person point of view – the third person point of view allows for the women of the book to become Woman. In the sense that they are all different facets of woman hood – all the women of the book represent different experiences of woman, even as they grow onto themselves. Unlike other reviewers, I don’t think this takes away from the book – I think, in a sense, it makes it better. It makes the reader look at the women in the story as characters both mysterious and understood – each visit into a woman’s head leaves the reader more fearful, confused, satisfied and angry. The sense of trepidation fills you through the whole, due to the fact that you are allowed to traverse each woman’s thoughts for a brief period of time.
The women are also set against one another in a comparison form – for example, the first scene where Annie revels in sexual liberation, and a similar aged Liga suffering under sex; the calmer Branza and the wild Urdda; the patient Urdda and the suspicious Annie; the worries Branza and the calm Liga – it goes on and on. The women are crutches and stepping stones for one another – helping each other get to a better life.
Which brings me to men – though all the first person point of views are male, they serve a function dissimilar to the women. The men in this story are unabashedly (for the most part) too human. They are greedy, they are glutinous, they allow sexual desire to control them, and they have bad attitudes towards near everything – especially consequences. It is through men – and their meddling with women, that all the bad things happen in the novel – and it is through women that some balance is reclaimed. The men in this story are the men of the old fairy tale s – they are characters of foreboding – they are meant to be scary and full of disappointment – they are the original Blue Beard and Prince Charming – male characters who killed their wives because they were bored, or happened upon a beautiful girl and raped her so he could have her. Which is why Lanagan equates them with the bears they dress up as. Bear Day is an interesting feature in the story, and I like the idea of the sexual freedom that is inherent in that – if only First Bear was all the bears. Because what happens is a muddling of nature and reality, a discussion between what is meant to be real, and who the bad guys really are.
And here is why it works: original fairy tales were meant to be warning stories: the world sucks, dear children. The fearies and the littlees, the witches and the animals in nature we keep away with our stonework and thatched roofs – those things are scary and at every moment you are in danger. They have sense – more sense anyway then nursery rhymes, but they rarely end happy – there is always a quid pro quo, always a tit for tat for the hero and the heroine – you want true love, be prepared for true loss; you want real happiness, be prepared for the equivalent heart ache; etc.
The women in this story traverse the boundaries of faery tale and not – especially the two daughters. They live in the fairy tale heaven-like world for most of their lives, and in a way, they represent us – the post-Grimm and post-Disney crowd that got accustomed to stories with happy endings, a sterile version of what they really are. And when they cross over to the real world – the world where faery tales once truly existsed, there are two responses: Urdda remains fascinated and moved forward’ Branza is fearful and tries to claw her way back to heaven.
In the same way, the dark fairy tales are slowly creeping back up to our cultures, they are becoming more popular, and their influence is beginning. The world is ready, I think, for a less moralistic and a more true sense of fairy tale, as dark as it can be. And I think this book is one to get us there.

~ Ammy Belle


  1. Excellent analysis, but this is not my kind of book. I like the dark histiry of fairy tales, how they were warnings, but I don't think that I'd enjoy reading about sooo dark and ugly.

  2. 'The world sucks, dear children'. Love it! That perfectly sums up the original fairy tales and more modern dark fairy tales like Tender Morsels (which is indeed a crazy good, if disturbing, book). I almost included it in my guest post on YA retellings... think I ended up cutting it out.

    Anyway, awesome analysis of Tender Morsels and fantastic guest post. Really enjoyed reading it!

  3. Thanks Kat! It really was an excellent book - but it is disturbing. Kudos to you for finishing it - it took me a while.

  4. Exceptionally well though out post. I'm looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I got this from Amazon (bargain price!) not too long ago, so I have a nice hardcover edition waiting to be read. Think I'll bump it up on my list. Great analysis!

  6. I have yet to read Tender Morsels (though I did buy it a while back) but I've heard so many incredible things about it. Fairy tales really aren't meant to be nice. Even the Grimm's Brothers fairy tales - the original ones - are quite dark. I'm into darker books, so I'd be more than okay with dark fairy tales taking off again.

    Disturbing book or not, Tender Morsels is one that I know I must read.


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