Review: The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature

Posted by Donna Mitchell on November 11, 2014 in Blog, Donna Mitchell, Reviews tagged with , , ,

The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman.
Edited by Joseph Abbruscato and Tanya Jones.
Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, 2014.
ISBN: 978-0-7864-7935-1
Reviewed by Donna Mitchell
In the introduction to this collection of essays, Joseph Abbruscato emphasises the importance of the fairy tale through its status as the first literary genre that we encounter as children. He considers the original form and function of the classic fairy tale and stresses that the presence of horror in those tales gave them a Gothic element which in turn ensured an overlap between the two literary genres. He continues his discussion with a reminder that over time this Gothic presence has been gradually watered down and removed due to the Disneyfication of fairy tales. The inevitable side effect of this modification is that today’s fairy tales lack the presence of Gothic/fear-provoking features that once functioned as crucial tools for the moral development of their young readers. Therefore, find the purpose of the ten essays that follow is to identify and explore the presence of classic fairy tale elements in contemporary young adult literature through three categories of analysis: the structure of the modern fairy tale, recurring themes and motifs in fairy tales, and finally, the relationship between the reader and the Gothic/dark fairy tale.

The Gothic Fairy Tale

To begin, Carys Crossen’s essay classifies Gothic, fairy tale, and Gothic fairy tale characteristics in David Almond’s Skellig (1998) by linking it to both Romantic poetry, primarily that of William Blake, and Gabriel García Márquez’s short story ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’. She uses a combination of selected fairy tale criticisms and Greek mythology to present her reading of Skellig as a revised version of García Márquez’s aforementioned text and also as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic fairy tale. The dual focus of Tanya Jones’ chapter is cannibalism and the uncanny figure of the bogeyman in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002) and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things (2006). A combination of Gothic and fairy tale elements are once again identified in these texts through her use of Marina Warner’s theory on witches to examine the doppelganger/Other Mother in Gaiman’s text. Then, giving a twist to the traditionally helpless fairy tale princess, she identifies Connolly’s heroine as a vampiric belle dame sans merci who preys upon the blood of her supposed saviours.

Erin Wyble Newcomb discusses the fairy tale themes of human nature and conflict between good and evil through the protagonist of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1986). Her reading of the text highlights the story’s focus on the abandonment of Ender’s parents and his subsequent struggle to survive, which she argues, presents a problematic and empathetic portrayal of a murderer. Separation from the family is also the focus of Joseph Abbruscato’s study of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008), in which he explores the fairy tale hero’s search for identity through the many challenges that must be undertaken and overcome in order to achieve it. He stresses the importance of other characters that function as both helpers and villains during this process. Additionally, he considers the significance of repetition (usually by three) as a crucial fairy tale feature in this stage of development, whereby the hero must learn to keep trying to overcome obstacles despite past failures.

Sarah R. Wakefield’s essay delves into the sensitive topics of incest and post traumatic stress disorder that are present in Robin McKinley’s Deerskin (1993). She classifies this novel as a modern rewriting of Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin fairy tale and analyses how it offers a more realistic presentation of overcoming the traumas of incest, rape and miscarriage. The importance of the fairy tale’s animal helper, as well as the novel’s alternative to the traditionally simplistic happy ending, is also discussed in relation to the heroine’s attempts to overcome her post traumatic stress disorder. Lisa K. Perdigao then returns the discussion to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline once again by offering a sharp deconstructive reading of the novel. As well as using Derridian theory to deconstruct fairy tale elements in the plot and characters, her essay also traces its back to Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.

The story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is used by Tim Saderwasser to examine the fear of alienation and parental abandonment in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999), and to trace the many obstacles that must be overcome once (enforced) independence from the family home has occurred. Once again the human struggle between good and evil is analysed as is the importance of the fairy tale villain’s representation of an evil presence. Eileen Donaldson examines how Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Series (2003) challenges young girls’ stereotypes through the fairy tales roles of the witch and the princess. She considers the various struggles encountered during the transitional period between childhood and young adulthood, and uses the figures of monsters and witches to explore the importance of looking beyond appearances through the fairy tale feature of ‘first sight and second thoughts’.

Female identity remains a central theme of the next essay in which Rhonda Nicol traces transformations in the Gothic heroines of Holly Black’s Modern Tales of Faerie (2002) and Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely (2007). The fairy tale figure of the changeling, and the significance of tattoos, drag, and androgyny in these stories are included in her discussion, which focuses on the complex issue of female identity and the heroines’ attempts to reclaim the female body. Finally, Carissa Turner Smith characterises Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse (2013) as an example of a postmodern fairy tale. Drawing connections between the novel and Greek mythology as well as ‘Beauty and the Beast’, her argument covers the importance of the narrative structure and the problematic presence of a shared narrator/protagonist in this text.

Collectively, these essays offer a comprehensive and coherent reading of the Gothic fairy tale features that can be found in young adult literature. References to various psychoanalytic criticisms are present in almost every chapter, thus highlighting the true complexity of these seemingly simplistic stories. Finally, the numerous connections between the two genres emphasise the lessons on morality and human nature that are present in young adult novels, which in turn proposes further investigation of this underrated genre.

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