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Human Tales by Jennifer Brozek, editor

Cover art by Alina Pete

Published by Dark Quest Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

JRR Tolkien once said that the human tales of the elves would concern the escape from deathlessness. He was trying to put some context around his characterization of death as the Gift of Men in his writings, particularly the stories of the Fall of Numenor, but that statement has tweaked the imaginations of many writers. What sorts of stories would the magical beings of fable and folklore tell of their dealings with humanity?

As editor Jennifer Brozek notes in her introduction, fairy tales contain a strong element of the cautionary tale, warning children of the perils of the world, and particularly of dealing with the Other. Thus it follows that the human tales of the Fair Folk would be about the perils of dealing with humans, about how they get the better of fairies and sprites and other folkloric entities.

Many fairy tales contain elements that are not politically correct, and can even be downright offensive. For instance, I have read a very compelling argument that the fairy tale "Rumplestiltskin" is in fact full of coded anti-Semitism. But by telling the story from the point of view of the magical weaver of straw into gold, Ivan Ewart makes "Bloody Spindle" into a story of exploitation that echoes how so many medieval and early modern European kings were happy to turn to Jewish financiers for loans -- and then throw them to the wolves when things went badly and the authorities needed a scapegoat to blame.

Fairies are often portrayed as child-stealers, and the old folklore is full of methods by which one might detect the changeling they left in its place and to compel the release of one's true child. But the story always presupposes that the child is indeed loved, and the parents are fit to raise a child. In "Caleb" Matthew McFarland gives us a story of the mean streets of modern America and a child struggling to survive in a family where the parents are most decidedly not up to the task of raising him. And then he opens a gate to the fairy realm, and his need cries out to sympathetic ears, to someone with the power to take him out of that nightmare for good.

In the story of Oedipus we have a monster known as the sphinx, which has the head of a woman and the body of a lion. It guarded the road to Thebes, asking a riddle and slaying everyone who cannot answer. (It is not to be confused with the Egyptian sphinx, which also was a human-headed lion, but was a good being, a royal guardian of the Pharaohs). In "Riddles" Seanan McGuire suggests that the humanocentric interpretation of the sphinx might be incorrect, or at least incomplete. In this story the sphinx is not something unique, but a member of an entire species who live by a code that one must eat one's prey, and that funerary cannibalism is the proper way to honor the deceased. Bewildered by humanity's failure to live by that code, they try to ask why, with tragic results.

When Christianity was introduced to Europe, the various fairy peoples of tradition had no clear place in a cosmology in which God had created only two categories of free-willed rational beings, humans and angels. As a result, and as part of the systematic demonization of the old beliefs, the Fair Folk were often associated with Satan and his fallen angels. Ari Marmell's "Tithe" explains the fairy habit of child-stealing as the result of the fairies being required to surrender an innocent to the Devil every seven years. Because they are not entirely depraved, they would prefer not to surrender their own children to the fires of Hell, so they seek to snatch human babies. The protagonist is an elven lord who had thought to make a bargain with a human lord that would provide him with his next tithe, only to be double-crossed. This is the story of his quest for justice.

Anyone who's heard "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" knows the story of the troll under the bridge. Of course in it he was the villain and the caprine protagonists did well to defeat him. Bit in "The Toll" Chuck Wendig suggests that the troll was in fact a guardian keeping people where they belonged, and his defeat was the harbringer of social disruption and disorder as people left their proper places to seek their own wishes.

The sea has long been viewed as both perilous and feminine (ships are always "she" in English, a fossil of older forms of the language in which everything had grammatical gender, as in German and Dutch), and there is a long tradition all over Europe of beautiful and dangerous entities that blend the appearance of a human woman with a sea creature. Mermaids are particularly familiar, but there is also the selkie, which can shed her sealskin to take the form of a beautiful woman and capture the heart of a mortal man. The only way for the man to ensure that his selkie love will not vanish back into the sea is to find her sealskin and destroy it. But in "Skin Tales" Sara M. Harvey inverts the male-centric narrative to tell the story of the selkie who fell for a mortal man and was ensnared. A story that sounds chillingly reminiscent of the narratives of countless victims of domestic violence, seen through a fairy-tale lens by which the sealskin becomes a symbol for a woman's resources that ensure her independence.

Up to this point the stories in this volume have drawn upon European folkloric traditions. But folklore and traditional narrative are human universals, and in "The Ifrit's Trial" Spencer Ellsworth takes is to the Middle East and the storytelling tradition that was collected in the Arabian Nights. The djinn are said to have been made of smokeless fire, and according to tradition fell from Allah's favor when they refused His command to bow before Adam as the crown of His creation. Ethnographic evidence suggests that belief in djinn far predate the rise of Islam and only later came to be associated with Shaytan, the Muslim version of Satan, the Adversary figure that can be traced back to the Book of Job in the Hebrew Tanakh or Writings. Ellsworth's fictional ifrit has become entangled in human affairs of the heart, with disastrous consequences.

Folklore is full of stories of statues come to life and living beings turned to stone. In "Cracks in Marble" Ryan Macklin gives us the story of a magical stone angel who runs afoul of the contradictory mandates of its creators, to its destruction.

Most of us are familiar with the tale of Rapunzel, if only in a Disnified version. In "Hunger's Child" Jess Hartley retells it from the perspective of Mother Gothel. in this telling, the girl's mother was what another time and place would call "no damned good." Indulged in every whim and appetite first by her parents and then by her husband, Una was forever making demands on the elderly wisewoman, even driving her husband to steal rampion from Mother Gothel's garden. When Una finally gave birth, she rejected her own child, and Mother Gothel took the baby in with the hopes that Una would come to her senses.

Instead Una's husband whipped the villagers into a moral panic, and soon a violent mob is coming for Mother Gothel. Using a magical Wish she transports herself and the baby to a distant abandoned tower. But the girl, whom she calls Rapunzel in memory of her mother's craving, proves equally willful and lacking in wisdom. For all Gothel seeks to keep the girl from harm, she seems determined to seek it out, and doesn't care what harm she causes.

The dragon on its hoard is a common image in fairy tales and the fantasies that arose from them. In "Bane" Shannon Page tells the story of a dragon and the greed of humans for the beautiful jewels of the earth. And then she looks into the heart of a man and her own heart is broken on the bitter truth of her immortal nature.

Dylan Bartolo's "The Human and the Sea Spirit" is another take on the old story of the man who falls in love with one of those mysterious, slippery entities associated with the sea, and yet again, shifting it to the female sea spirit's point of view gives it an overtone of domestic abuse. If anything, it's even more dark than "Skin Deep," for the human lover in this story doesn't just cut off his woman's options one by one, until she has no resources with which to escape. When he becomes weary of her, he accepts another man's offer and soon she's on display in some stranger's fountain. Very disturbing indeed.

Deborah J Brannon's "A Tithe for Homecoming" tells the story of a circle of dryads who run afoul of human wrath. In the times of the ancient Greek myth that would've meant bronze axes and saws, but modern American husbands have recourse to such delights as gasoline for destroying magical trees and breaking free their womenfolk. Although this is a story in which it appears that the magical beings have won in the end, there are hints that humanity may yet have another round in this conflict.

Alma Alexander's "Color" is another story of changelings, bit this time the story centers upon the differences in how humans and fairies see the world. When a fairy longs to see color as humans do, he discovers that some things cannot be unseen.

In "A Mother's Choice" an elven warrior woman struggles to keep her willful healer daughter safe in spite of her determination to use her healing arts on humans. It's a story of oaths given with the intent on wriggling out of them on a technicality and the surprising ways in which elven magics can shape the paths of lives to ensure their keeping.

In "The Griffin's Tail" David Lee Summers tells the story of a griffin who taught the arts of civilization to the protagonist. But he must leave to find a mate, and she doesn't want him to. So she contrives to compel him to stay, only to discover that she is dealing with a hardwired imperative, and she may well have sealed his doom. It's a trope I've seen many times in science fiction dealing with human ignorance of alien biology and its tragic results, but seeing it in fantasy feels a little odd.

In "Holding the Line" James L Sutter gives us the story of a goblin guardian of a princess who never knows the sacrifices made on her behalf.

Most of us know the story of the elves and the shoemaker, and have at least some notion of the tradition of fairy entities secretly aiding craftsmen in their work, and the various ways in which an unwitting human can cause these helpful beings to leave. In "The Price of Cream" Nathan Crowder brings the brownie tradition to the modern New York fashion world, and a shoe designer with a mind sharp as any lawyer. Suddenly the brownies are in an unhappy state of duress vile, with no way to escape, for the simple reason that the cream which was dear in a medieval village has been made quite cheap by modern industrial methods of agriculture and food distribution.

The volume is completed by contributor biographies. Although some of the stories are a little less polished, they all do a good job of letting us see the fairy-tale tradition from a perspective that isn't humanocentric, and maybe upsets some comfortable assumptions.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Jennifer Brozek
  • Telling the Tale
    • "Bloody Spindle" by Ivan Ewert
    • "Caleb" by Matthew McFarland
    • "Riddles" by Seanan McGuire
    • "Tithe" by Ari Marmell
    • "The Toll" by Chuck Wendig
    • "Skin Deep" by Sara M. Harvey
    • "The Ifrit's Trial" by Spencer Ellsworty
    • "Cracks in Marble" by Ryan Macklin
    • "Hunger's Child" by Jess Hartley
  • Living the Tale
    • "Bane" by Shannon Page
    • "The Human and the Sea Spirit" by Dylan Birtolo
    • "A Tithe for Homecoming" by Deborah Brannon
    • "Color" by Alma Alexander
    • "A Mother's Choice' by Renee Stern
    • "The Griffin's Tail" by Daid Lee Summers
    • "Holding the Line" by James Sutter
    • "The Price of Cream" by Nathan Crowder
  • Biographies

Review posted July 24, 2012

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