Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Fairy's Mistake

Ella Enchanted.  My first encounter with the fractured fairy tale.  I vividly remember reading it--even where I was when I was reading parts of it.  Since then, I've tried to read all of Gail Carson Levine's books, but none of them approached the magic of Ella.  My favorite recent book was A Tale of Two Castles--it was just so sweet that I wanted to pinch its chubby metaphorical cheeks!  Okay, and The Princesses of Bamarre was good too.

Poking around in our children's fiction section at work, I spotted the full set of The Princess Tales, which are novellas exploring different princess-themed fairy tales.  They clock in at 100 pages or fewer, so they're very quick reads.  I just finished the first one, The Fairy's Mistake.

Surprisingly for a book by Levine, who generally features strong female protagonists and emphasizes empowerment, the women and men in this book exhibit some pretty disturbing behavior.  I know that this series is written for littler ones, but kids pick up on how men treat women, even if it's in books.  So where does my problem come from?

Here's the lowdown: Rosella and Myrtle live with their mother, a widow, in a cottage.  Rosella is good and Myrtle is nasty.  One day, Rosella goes to draw water from the well and meets an elderly woman there who asks for a drink of water.  Rosella gives her water, and suddenly *whoosh* the elderly woman is now a fairy.

Don't tell me you didn't see that coming.  Pro tip: always give water to someone at a well: they are either fairies in disguise or Jesus.

Ethelinda, the fairy, blesses Rosella for her goodness by making it so that every time Rosella speaks, gems fall from her mouth.  When she returns home, her greedy mother immediately sends Myrtle to the well to receive the same gift.  Well, we all know how that goes.  Myrtle insults the fairy and is cursed to spit out toads, snakes, and bugs instead.

While Myrtle is busy making Bad Life Decisions, a prince wanders by (as they do.  Fairy tale lands have a surfeit of unmarried princes, which seems unlikely) and notices the gems falling from Rosella's lips.  Being a greedy git, he immediately proclaims his love for the maiden and whisks her off to the castle to be married.  Rosella's mother is doubly disappointed in that she lost her only source of semi-precious gems and gained a daughter who necessitates the medieval equivalent of Raid.

As Ethelinda observes her handiwork, she notices that her blessing and her curse are not working as intended--in fact, they are doing the opposite!  Rosella is miserable because the prince forces her to speak all the time in order to fill his coffers.  He even stations servants at her bedside to catch gems that might be generated by sleep-talking.  Needless to say, Rosella can't sleep.  She also sees the poverty of the common people and discovers that the prince just keeps taxing them because, remember: greedy git.

Myrtle, on the other hand, quickly discovered that because no one wants to be visited with a plague of creepy crawlies, she can bully shopkeepers and neighbors into giving her things for free--all she has to do is keep her mouth shut.  So Myrtle gets cakes and fine gowns and many presents while her sister runs around in a burlap sack (it's the only one the Royal Ladies-In-Waiting didn't tear apart because Rosella dripped jewels onto them).

In a slightly strange and rather unconvincing turn of events, Ethelinda gets Myrtle to come to the caste and pretend to be her sister, releasing swarms of bugs, reptiles, and amphibians in the prince's presence.  She tells him that that is what happens when she is angry.  He, being a right dunce, believes her and hides for a week.  Rosella then demands that she use her power only for good (ha ha)--that is, to provide riches for the overtaxed peasants.  The prince demands a 50/50 split and Rosella agrees.  THEN she kisses the prince and marries him.

This is actually a pretty standard retelling of Diamonds and Toads by Perrault--nothing excessively funny or witty here.  I'm shocked at the spinelessness of Rosella.  She justifies giving into the prince's demands by saying that he was "generous" in making her a princess.  He doesn't deserve any of her riches, so the whole 50/50 thing was absolutely ridiculous.  And why would you kiss, much less marry someone who is clearly materialistic, self-absorbed, and emotionally stunted?  This guy is like the worst choice she could have made.  She should have married the poor farmer to whom she gave gems ... anybody, really.  Or go be a nun.  That might work out better.  I thought that in one version of the story the stepmother slapped somebody really hard ... but that might have been a recent book.  I don't know.

Anyway.  I felt really let down by the one-dimensional, listless, and spineless Rosella.  Girls reading this book deserve a lot better than her.

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