This piece was written by Ciara Ní Bhroin, lecturer in English Literature and Children’s Literature Studies in Marino College of Further Education, Dublin. She launched the book for Little Island on the 8th September, and her speech was so superb that we just had to have it in writing. Endless thanks to Ciara Ní Bhroin for writing it, and for allowing us to share it with you here.
Tangleweeed and Brine is a truly breath-taking collection, a rich intertextual feast that blends the old and the new in exciting ways, in illuminating ways and in emancipatory ways. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my spine tingled as I read these tales – I was captivated by the compelling narrative voice in each one, the intriguing and transformative perspectives that breathe new life into old stories, the sensuous imagery and language that made me want to linger on each word, to savour each image. Blood mingles with feathers as a meal is being prepared. A fire blazes weakly, “nuzzling the grate with half an ashy heart”. A “pelt-dark sky” is filled with “little glinting teeth”. The image of wet salt upon fur, or of a forest filled with snow. A young woman stretches out on a bed in an inn with soft bread in her mouth and the taste of butter, wondering what they’re doing at the ball. A babe in the womb demands to be fed and responds with delight to the touch of the witch, purring like a beast. A young witch-to-be dips a “toe into the forest night”.
Fairytales are a rich source of material for writers – they are powerful resonant stories with recurring metaphors that plummet the depths of the human psyche. They are projections of our fantasies- our greatest wishes and desires but also, equally importantly, our deepest horrors and fears. Since fairytales were first collected and adapted for children they have been endlessly edited and sanitised, used for the moral education, socialisation and acculturation of children in patriarchal values. They’ve been Disneyfied and commodified and robbed of much of the power and vigour of the old earthy stories from which many of them originated. In particular, older tales of female agency from the oral culture were neglected and darker elements of fairytales relating to sexuality and violence were written out. Deirdre recovers these elements in this collection. Indeed, one of the many strengths of the collection is the powerful blend of desire and horror that characterises the tales and makes them so riveting to read. The potency of the older tales is recovered but there is something very contemporary here too, in the intimate and nuanced manner of focalisation and the strong emphasis throughout the collection on female subjectivity and voice, on the complexity of female experience, of relationships between females and the dynamics of male-female relationships. Much has been said and written about the portrayal of females in fairytales. There is a large body of feminist criticism and a rich stream of feminist retellings by writers such as Angela Carter, Emma Donoghue, Anne Sexton and others. Deirdre draws very effectively on this rich counter-tradition to create something distinctive and new, a unique and beautiful collection.
The range of tales is notable. The collection includes intriguing reimaginings of well-known tales such as “Cinderella”, “Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel”, as well as less frequently told tales such as “The Goose Girl”, “Fair Brown and Trembling” and “Bluebeard”. An old tale is recovered that was neglected and indeed became taboo over time – “Donkeyskin”, a tale in which the heroine must contend, not with the cruelty of a stepmother and stepsisters, but the unwanted attentions of her father. While tales of wicked stepmothers have circulated in multiple versions, tales of errant fathers largely died out. Deirdre has written a very potent, poetic and hypnotic version, entitled “Riverbed”, and its inclusion here is significant, as is the portrayal of attraction between females in a fascinating version of “The Goose Girl” (here entitled “The Little Gift”), a story of love, heartbreak, treachery and betrayal. The organisation of the stories is distinctive – they are arranged into two sections as indicated by the title of the collection – earthy tales featuring forests, flora, fauna, flesh and fowl, and tales of water, rivers, seas and wells, of salt and brine. There is a strong elemental undercurrent- earth, fire, air and water. This is a collection, too, of contrasts – of birth and death, of violence and tenderness, of oppression and resistance, of vulnerability and agency. But it is also nuanced and subtle. These are dark tales, but also tales of liberation.
You have probably gleaned by now that this is not a collection of once- upon- a-times and happy- ever- afters. There are no fairy godmothers waving wands. The heroines in these stories must rely on their own resources – their own resilience and creativity. Mothers and daughters feature strongly. The heroine in “Slippershod” is empowered by the strong bond with her dead mother, whose scent lingers on the clothes stored in the attic, clothes that Slippershod deftly alters to suit her own distinctive shape. No confining glass slipper for her! The slippers that she steps into are those of her mother before her and they inspire her to venture forth, to forge her own path, to go journeying.
These tales represent a rejection of passive roles traditionally assigned to female heroines and, I think, still too often perpetuated in popular culture for young people today, where the pressure to conform to a particular body image or style of fashion is arguably stronger than ever before. It is significant that Slippershod is unusually small, while the miller’s golden-haired daughter is unusually tall. We are told that “She wasn’t soft threads woven into silk, but thick rough cables pulsing like muscles on the chests of fishermen.” The traditional polarisation of females as virtuous, passive and delicate heroines or powerful but demonic villains is subverted here. The females in this collection are full-blooded and full-bodied. They are corporeal beings with appetites, with agency and with a strong supernatural dimension. Witchcraft is rehabilitated and celebrated as symbolic of female agency and creativity. “Suffer Little Children” is a version of “Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the witch, whose fascinating back story frames the tale in a truly transformative way. “Fair, Brown and Trembling”, here entitled “Sister Fair”, tells of three sisters, each lovely, and the man that their father brings to select one of them. In many classic fairytales women are pitted as rivals for male approval. This tale explores what it feels like to be one of three. On the one hand, the desire to be chosen, to be valued, to have one’s distinctiveness recognised, to be more than beauty and a womb. On the other hand, being one of three sisters involves moments of tenderness and intimacy, ways in which they protect and support each other, the complexity of sibling dynamics and in particular of the bonds between sisters. Of course, being chosen can be a poisoned chalice, as the young virgin chosen to mate with the frog prince knows too well. And marriage is not necessarily the reward that females strive for. The young wife in “The Woodcutter’s Bride” dreams of her encounter in the woods long ago and is left “aching for things she knows and does not know”. In “Ash Pale” there is a reversal of typical portrayals of Snow White and her stepmother, creating a dark and gothic tale that subverts clear-cut notions of youthful innocence, of female good and evil, of punishment and reward.
There is a deconstruction of the hero in these tales too – an ambivalent portrayal of the woodcutter, whose “sausage fingers” built the house in which his child bride prepares for his homecoming, listening out for his hobnail boots. On the other hand there is an intriguing rehabilitation of Bluebeard. The gothic, here, is imbued with tenderness. While these are terse tales, they are also lyrical and poetic. Many of the tales are told in the second person, a compelling form of address that positions the reader in the narrative in a special way and demands that we sit up and take notice.
The domestic arts feature strongly – baking, needlework, knitting. Indeed, the collection itself is like a tapestry, in its cover design and in the colours and textures woven into the stories. Black, white and red are recurring colours in fairytales and they feature here too – the powerful image of red blood upon snow, with all its metaphoric significance. But women are many things, as the narrator in one tale says, and there are many chambers in a heart. So, too, there are many colours in this collection: browns, greens, pinks, blues, yellows. Both Slippershod and Donkeyskin associate their mothers with colours : “She was colours. Colours and a voice. And you were loved.”
I’m glad that the colours in this collection are in the words rather than the pictures. More typical fairytale anthologies tend to have very glossy, lavishly coloured illustrations and I think that Karen Vauhgan’s striking black-and-white pen-and-inks hit the right tone for this collection. They’re intricate, textured, highly patterned and ornate so that they capture both the sumptuousness of this collection as well as its terseness. There is a very effective use of perspective in the illustration of the woodcutter’s wife, whom we view from above so that she appears small, seated in a corner of the room with the heads of wild animals of the forest, presumably trophies of her husband’s, looming large on the walls around and above her. By contrast we view the witch in “Suffer Little Children” from below so that she looms large. Surrounded by animals, she is a creature of the forest herself. She appears matronly and kindly. A bunch of keys hanging from her belt could be those of a good housekeeper or a jailor. And is that an axe hidden in the fold of her skirt? The illustration captures perfectly the ambivalence of the tale, in particular its ending.
There are no neatly packaged endings in this collection. Much of the power of these tales is in their expansive open-endedness. We’re left with questions, with a strong sense of mystery and wonder, but mostly with a sense of infinite possibility. Beauty, in the last tale, conjures up the beast before venturing out naked and unafraid into the dangerous places.
This is a powerful collection, a very valuable contribution to young adult literature, to feminist writing and to fairytale literature. It will keep readers enthralled and scholars engaged for many years to come. It just remains for me to congratulate Deirdre, Karen and all involved in Little Island and to warmly recommend the collection to all of you. This is a book to treasure and will reward multiple re-readings.