During my formative years, when my reading material was not as closely supervised as it should have been, I had an illustrated anthology of Grimms’ Fairy Tales that I read obsessively. This, along with a book of Greek mythology and 1001 Arabian Nights, sealed my fate as a diehard pessimist with a fatalistic belief that life was little more than a succession of terrible and preordained mishaps. But it also contained a tiny seed of hope: if you were the virtuous peasant girl or clever princess, willing to slave away for a wicked ogress or speak nicely to a terrifying man-bear, you’d be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams, not only with rivers of gold, but also with your very own handsome prince (even if he’d spent a large chunk of his life as some kind of unattractive beast).
Of course, the best-known fairy tales were only transcribed after generations of oral storytelling. Many of them are so familiar that we can recite them by heart, hundreds of years after their creation. Is there room for new ones, invented in the present day? Invented by, say, some guy in Seattle who wrote them to be read at open-mic nights, rather than at the bedsides of innocent little tykes? I had my doubts, but, as readers of fairy tales know, doubting never got any princess anywhere.
“A Princess in Pieces” tells the story of a princess so beautiful that she drives her royal father mad with desire. To escape him, she cuts herself in pieces; some friendly fish put her together, and a passing prince espies her and falls in love. But the princess has been incorrectly reassembled, and she can only be fixed if the prince agrees to be cut up and put back together, too.
“The Beastly Brides,” one of the better pieces in the collection, is an Arabian Nights-style story about a princess who is forced by her court to take a husband. Outwitting her oafish suitors, she marries them off to a variety of her pets; when the princes figure out they’ve been duped, they kick out their unwanted wives, and the animals plot revenge on their faithless men.
“The Scorpion’s Wedding Ring” is the story of a tiny scorpion who, venturing into a castle, falls in love with the handsome young prince. To earn his hand in marriage, she must retrieve the queen’s wedding ring from a vicious ogre; but an enterprising young court lady hears the plan, and follows the scorpion, hoping to steal the ring and marry the prince herself.
Written in a florid, elaborate style with the archaic phrasing common to fairy tales, the stories frequently slip into modern language, which is doubtlessly intended for ironic effect but fails to amuse. In fact, the stories are at their weakest when directly borrowing from fairy-tale convention: talking birds and animals interact with humans for no apparent reason, fantastical monsters appear for a scene and then vanish from the narrative entirely. Although we accept these psychedelic plot twists in established fairy tales, they don’t adapt well to contemporary writing – or stand up to critical analysis. If there’s any symbolism or nuance of meaning to these apparitions, it’s lost in the clamour; the author hardly seems to know what to do with them all, and deploys them haphazardly to liven up his tales. Nor is there any moral lesson at the end, which the author cheerfully admits; but if they’re neither entertaining nor instructive, what is the reason for reading them?
The book is illustrated by four artists, only one of whom can draw. From cartoonish figures to imitation woodcuts, the pictures might have been commissioned from a high school art class; the scenes they illustrate are not especially well-chosen, nor are they very dramatic (one features a badly-drawn girl leaning sadly against a palm tree, with a geometric border of the kind doodled by bored students in math class). Their amateurish appearance further undermines the stories, and makes the book rather unpleasant to look at – a far cry from the elaborate, imagination-inspiring engravings in my Grimms’ anthology.
An interesting but unsuccessful experiment, Petals & Thorns may have rocked the Seattle open-mic fairy-tale scene but fails to come together in book form. Although old-fashioned fairy tales continue to captivate children and adults today, it appears that Bret Fetzer won’t be adding any new stories to the canon.