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Grimm Psychology : THE SEA-RABBIT OR, THE ARTIST OF LIFE by Wendy Walker (Sun & Moon Press: $17.95, cloth; $11.95, paper; 272 pp.)

January 22, 1989|Jack Zipes | Zipes has translated "The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm" and written a critical study entitled "The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World." and

Whenever we pick up a collection of fairy tales, we expect to be relieved by their happy endings, especially when they are re-told tales by the Brothers Grimm. Thus contemporary authors of refurbished fairy tales such as Robin McKinley ("The Door in the Hedge"), Charles de Lint ("Jack the Giant Killer") and William Goldman ("The Princess Bride") continue to offer prescriptions for happiness a la Grimm. Not so Wendy Walker. She is a writer more along the lines of Angela Carter ("Bloody Chamber") and Tanith Lee ("Red as Blood"), for she probes the murkier side of fairy tales and provokes readers to search for the hidden meanings of unresolved conflicts.

Walker has rewritten six tales from the Grimms' "Children's and Household Tales," composed two new stories about Samson and Delilah and the woman who lived in a boot, and invented a parable about the cathedral of Notre Dame, all with the purpose of altering our customary notions about the classical fairy-tale tradition and the real-life conflicts within it. She accomplishes her modernist goal of restoring the unspoken of the traditional tales by fleshing out the lives of the original characters, probing their psyches, and altering narrative perspectives.

In the title tale of the book, "The Sea Rabbit," based on the Grimms' "The Little Hamster From the Water," she presents an unlikely protagonist, who refuses to accept the role of hero. He is not particularly enamored of the cruel and haughty princess, who takes pleasure in cutting off the heads of her suitors. Despite the fact that he outwits the princess and "wins" her, he is not optimistic about the future.

Nor is the prince sanguine in "Ashipattle," Walker's version of "Cinderella." The prince expresses his disappointment after marrying Ashipattle, who becomes concerned mainly with building a bird-castle for her beloved birds. Walker's other characters, Clever Elsie, Jack My Hedgehog, the discharged soldier from "The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes," and Arnaud, the hunter from "The Nixie in the Pond"--all familiar characters from the Grimms' tales--also have strange fates that alienate us from our typical expectations, for they refuse to settle for material wealth and superficial happiness.

Although Walker sometimes remains too close to the original plotlines of the Grimms' tales, her terse style and use of different narrative voices produce haunting images that fuse the past with the present. In "The Rescuer," the problems between Samson and Delilah are depicted as those of a contemporary married couple, whose spats drive Samson to see therapists in the guise of oracles. Ironically, just as Samson feels rescued and reconciled to Delilah through therapy, he is blinded by his enemies.

Walker is relentlessly blunt when it comes to telling the psychological truth of the old tales, as though she wants to expose the way we have been blinded by the traditional tales. All in all, her collection of fairy tales with their bleak vision will startle readers rather than provide relief. There's no happiness in sight here, but perhaps this is the only way contemporary authors can re-tell fairy tales in times as troubled as ours.

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