The Society Pages is a twice-monthly column about stories and feelings, through a sociopolitical lens. Because these are analyses of full narratives rather than reviews, they almost certainly contain spoilers for major plot points and narrative elements. This week: Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard, and Roses in Amber, by C.E. Murphy. Proceed with caution.
G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Neil Gaiman paraphrased this as: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Every family has their fairy tales. We all have our witches and heroes, our princesses and beasts. People like to think in archetypes; it helps us understand one another, and this is why character categories persist in our stories. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways we can use stories, even “fluffy” ones, to help us find ways to exist in the world, but the fact is that the stories we tell ourselves not only about fairies and monsters but also about ourselves are how we understand things. Stories and myths help us make sense of a world that is rarely reasonable; magic helps us believe we might be able to conjure up the power to make it right again. Genre readers tend to know this better than most; connecting and engaging with unrealistic fiction takes a particular kind of imagination.
We may grow up with a jealous mother in a tower, tangled up in ourselves. Perhaps an angry lover, prone to alternating between romance and rage, or a stranger depicted by spiteful family as wicked who turns out to be kind. Perhaps a stepmother who does not know how to come into a family that already exists, or a father who does not know how to stand up for his children. Perhaps an old woman, living alone, who just won’t step into the grandmotherly shape we expect from her. Stories give us ways to approach these situations, or at least hope that we might, one day, be okay again.
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard is a modern fairy tale, which takes many of the traditional aspects of British Isles tales–complicated rules, people who disappear, changelings, and bargains–and plants them firmly onto a modern New England artist’s colony. It is a story of love, and envy, and curses: the main characters are a pair of sisters who must strike a careful balance between their love for one another and their conflicting desires, as well as their attempts to escape a curse. That there are two layers to this story is inconsequential; the curse of their abusive mother is no less tied to their fairy patrons than to the curse of the fairy land itself, and it is the struggle to break both curses without breaking each other that is fundamental to their story. It is, the characters remind us, almost impossible to completely escape an abusive parent; it is often in their nature to find their way to us, to grasp at whatever threads of control they can manage to maintain.
In a similar vein, C.E. Murphy’s Roses in Amber is a retelling of the original version of Beauty and the Beast, which apart from some details, is almost unrecognizable when compared to the modern versions. There is no selfish prince, no haggard enchantress; in the original tale as in this one, the beast is the creation of a jealous mother: an essentially kind boy, whose mother disfigures him and his world in order to punish her lover. This, too, is a family story, the punishment of children for the sins of their parents. When the curse is broken, it is not only freedom from the enchantment, but freedom from those who feel inescapable.
Fairy tales describe our demons, and set out the rules for surviving them. They tell us how to cope with curses we can’t escape, whether they’re magical or all too real. The important thing, though, is that fairy tales also give us a way out. Like escaping real life curses (violence, poverty, and so on) in reality, of course, the rules are complicated and nearly impossible to follow perfectly, but there are rules, and this in itself is comfort. The stories tell us that our pasts need not be everything we are, that we can remake ourselves, and that we can escape.