We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

A Conversation with Kate Wolford

Editor’s Note: Over the past ten years or so, fairy tales have undergone a veritable renaissance online. Today we’re happy to welcome one of the stalwarts and guiding lights of that renaissance: publisher, educator, and friend of this blog Kate Wolford. A lecturer at Indiana University South Bend, Kate has been editing the zine and Wolford 1community Enchanted Conversation since 2009. We recently caught up with Kate for a chat about her new book Beyond the Glass Slipper: Ten Neglected Fairy Tales to Fall in Love With (World Weaver Press, US $9.95), mangled texts, and the very strange story “King Pig.” Read it below and add your voice in the comments.

UW: So, the idea for Beyond the Glass Slipper seems to be to offer an annotated edition of lesser-known fairy tales. How—and why—did you choose these ten?

KW: The process of choosing the fairy tales for Beyond the Glass Slipper involved my personal preferences, a search for balance, and the very real problem of making sure that the versions of the tales I was annotating were actually in public domain.

Personal preference guided me toward “The Nixy” and “King Pig.” I consider the first to be the most truly romantic fairy tale in all of Western fairy tale lore, because most of the action takes place after the protagonist is married. I think the story illustrates the pitfalls and joys any couple faces in a long-term partnership. The second I chose because it was the most offensive fairy tale I could find that was still highly entertaining. I also enjoy “love like salt” fairy tales, and that’s what made me include “The Dirty Shepherdess.” Plus, the name, “The Dirty Shepherdess.”

Balance was a tougher issue. I had a strong desire to show that fairy tales do not only have women protagonists. I love tales with women at the core, but I think that too many readers think fairy tales are only for women. There’s room for everyone! So I included a vampire story with a soldier protagonist, a ghost story, and a story with another soldier, and this time, of highly questionable character. Then, there was the question of general balance, gender aside. That’s why there are several road stories and there’s a story about two toys. There’s even an actual story with a fairy (not that common in “fairy” tales).

Finally, I learned the hard way that not every story I liked was available for inclusion in the book. Old variants of some stories were not very readable, and newer versions were still in translation copyright. This led me to cutting “Little Broomstick,” which is in translation at D. L. Ashliman’s wonderful site!

Why this book, and these tales? Why not, say, Newly Annotated Familiar Fairy Tales or Fractured Feminist Fairy Tales or some such?

I have wanted to write a book that focuses on the “lesser” fairy tales for some time. It’s not that I don’t love, say, “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast.” I do. But the cultural weight they carry makes me feel like I could never find anything new or interesting to say about them. The world doesn’t need another collection of essays or annotations about the usual suspects of the fairy tale world.

So I scoured the Andrew Lang many-colored fairy tale collections, plus Project Gutenberg. I wanted a variety of tales that would appeal to a wide audience. There’s a bit of horror in Beyond the Glass Slipper, plus the weirdest animal bridegroom tale I’ve ever read, and even a tale of a ball and top, as in toys. The stories come together because each story offers solitary readers, book club members, and writers, a rich story to poke at, think about, and possibly write about. That’s the “glue” of the work, I guess. The fact that readers can discover “new” old fairy tales in a book I planned, edited and annotated is exciting to me.

That’s curious. You mention in the introduction that what the world does need, if you will, is–not easier access to these tales, per se, since they’re all over the internet and good libraries everywhere–but a guide into the stories that are out there. And part of how Beyond the Glass Slipper guides is the critical apparatus, and the questions after each story preface. What did you want to bring out about these stories as you annotated them? And how would you want to see the questions used, in the classroom or out of it?

As a teacher, a reader, a writer, and a person who loves to discuss what I read, I find that I often over-invest texts with a kind of rigid truth. In other words, “so it is written, so it must be.”

I do know better. I know that all texts are released into the minds of the people who read them, and who knows what will happen? Yet, paradoxically, while we interpret, we think of texts as being somehow authoritative. This is particularly problematic in the classroom. I will assign “Beauty and the Beast,” for example, and ask students how they think Beauty’s relationship with her sisters might inform her actions.

Often, I’ll get answers like, “Well, they don’t get along. Her sisters are jealous.”

And that is about all I’ll get. It’s not that the students don’t care. It’s that they are afraid to be wrong or, in a funny way, “insult” the text–although they wouldn’t use that word. I know they are scared, because they visit during office hours and offer thoughtful insight into the stories, but admit that not only are they afraid of appearing “dumb” in front of other students, but they also feel like, “Who am I to question the story?”

BRF_bearSo, by picking ten stories that carry little cultural weight, and interrogating and annotating the heck out of them, I hope to free readers from any timidity about playing with the texts. The stories come to them, well, pre-mangled. If they are already torn up, why not play freely with them? Who knows what magic might result?

I should add that I don’t care if readers or teachers or writers or students think my questions and ideas are right or wrong. I just want them to dig in.

Let’s pick up on that idea of the pre-mangled text. This is symptomatic, I think, of working with many if not most fairy tale texts–the conundrum of the literary fairy tale, if you will.
The collection opens with what’s clearly a folktale, “The Nixy,” yet the beautiful version here is from The Yellow Fairy Book. We know, or can find out easily enough, the author of this particular retelling, we know, or can find out, the historical context it was written in, in 1894.
Andrew Lang, in his introduction to The Yellow Fairy Book, specifically talks about the criticism he and Joseph Jacobs were getting from other folklorists for producing what were seen as misrepresentations of the fairy tale tradition. And of course we find the same sort of editorial retelling—pre-mangling, to use your delightful phrase, in the Grimms.

So, how do these particular, historical adaptations help the readers understand the fairy tale tradition? Are they informative beyond their historical context? Or, putting it another way, why this book instead of a collection of transcribed oral folktales?

I would like to say that these particular adaptations were chosen based on a strong academic/research basis, but that would be a lie. I chose the versions for the book based on what I loved, and many of the classic versions of the fairy tales I enjoy most are ones that happened to be in my house as a child. In other words, Lang’s versions are in Beyond the Glass Slipper because they are what I read as a child. Proximity, the engine that fosters friendships and romances, also, it seems, fostered Beyond the Glass Slipper.

I think that people like Lang and Jacobs, and really the Brothers Grimm (despite their insistence that they stayed “true” to their sources), did fairy tales, and even folklore in general, an enormous service. In a time when both cheap printing and literacy were exploding, they made fairy tales accessible in a way that clearly delighted millions of readers. In that sense, I think the fairy explosion of popularity in the last two centuries may have helped folklore in general. But I’m sure some people would disagree with me. I suppose you could argue they were a little bit like Disney–like them or hate them (and I mostly don’t like Disney fairy tale movies), they did a lot to keep fairy tales alive in popular culture. But like Disney, they did a lot of “pre-mangling.” I just like the way those old guys mangled.

That’s not far afield from Lang’s own defence, actually. Love and beauty are two of the main reasons to read anything, really.

OK, I have to ask. “King Pig”—what’s with that story?

King PigI am still trying to come up with an answer about King Pig that doesn’t boil down to … I don’t know.

That is probably the best possible of all possible answers to that question.

So let’s go back to pre-mangling. You’ve been editing various mangleations (if I can coin a term) of fairy tales for a while now at Enchanted Conversation. And some of your annotations in Beyond the Glass Slipper seem applicable as pointers for those of us who wish to mangle fairy tales ourselves. What tendencies, good or bad, have you seen in the re-mangling of the fairy tale tradition? And what would you like to see?

Among the best trends of fairy tale rewriting that I see in submissions include irreverence toward the text, a willingness to write about older supporting characters (even if they are never in a original story), and a willingness to construct a protagonist who may not be all “good,” but is still someone we root for.

The worst trends include crushingly depressing explorations of the dark side of fairy tales that include no positive ideas about what means to be human, an obsession with all things Disney, and clumsy “you go girl!” attempts at sending self-esteem building messages to women. Positive messages to readers are great, but I think entertainment matters.

Oh, and that Wicked thing is played out. So are all its variations—with any story. I love seeing things from the baddie’s point of view, I really do, but let’s take it beyond that particular musical.

What I’d like to see is evidence that people actually visit Enchanted Conversation and read what is published there. People who actually read the works on the site are both inspired by other writers’ work and willing to use what is already on the site as a point of departure for works with new ideas. I can tell.

What do you hope people learn from Beyond the Glass Slipper?

What I hope writers and poets take away from Beyond the Glass Slipper is a willingness to interrogate a tale before running with a new take on it. I want writers and poets to see that when you go to retell a tale (or set out to write a new one, influenced by old tales), that taking fairy tales down to their pieces is where inspiration is. In the bits, we find the treasure, the writer’s happily ever after: an idea worth writing about.

Kate Wolford was interviewed by John Patrick Pazdziora

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