I love adult fairy tales, but it seems that all too often, writers pump up the sex and violence to render the tales “adult,” rather than more deeply exploring the human emotional dramas in the stories. Maybe that’s why I love the anthology The Armless Maiden: And Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors which was edited by Terri Windling. The tales and poems here do include sex and violence, yes, but at their heart is the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
So many of the classic fairy tales include situations that we would now call abuse. Hansel and Gretel were abandoned, Donkeyskin suffered incest, and the original Sleeping Beauty was raped rather than kissed. In most of these stories, the protagonist endures great pain, then rises above the suffering and triumphs over his or her tormentors. In the old versions, the protagonist often does this by gaining fortune and position. In the retellings collected in The Armless Maiden, the victory is more often psychological. Marina Warner writes that, more than any other distinguishing characteristic, “metamorphosis defines the fairy tale.” In these stories, we see victims transformed into survivors.
These are serious, and often heartbreaking, retellings. My personal favorites include Emma Bull‘s poem “The Stepsister’s Story,” in which one of Cinderella’s stepsisters regrets the friendship they never had; and Ellen Kushner‘s short story “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” which features a young girl left in the care of a cold-hearted guardian and haunted by the ghost of the woman’s unhappy daughter. I recommend The Armless Maiden both to abuse survivors and to anyone with an interest in sensitively retold fairy tales.