Under the big top of The Emerald Circus (2017) is a fantastical assemblage of sixteen short stories and novelettes by Jane Yolen. Historical figures like Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, Hans Christian Andersen and Edgar Allen Poe enter the three rings and shed their normal identities, dancing across the high wires and peering into tigers’ mouths. In this circus’ House of Mirrors we also see unexpectedly twisted reflections of fictional characters like Alice in Wonderland (who makes an appearance here in two very different Yolen tales), Merlin, and Dorothy Gale. A few fairy tale characters ― the Snow Queen, Beauty and the Beast, Red Riding Hood and the wolf ― round out the performers in this entrancing circus.
My favorite stories in this collection:
“Andersen’s Witch” ― Hans, a young boy from a destitute, conflict-ridden family, is visited by the Ice Maiden one night, who grants him his three wishes. He wishes for a bed long enough for his legs to fit, for his Papa to get well enough to earn money for the family, and to become a rich poet, a digter. Like wishes granted by faeries, though, those granted by the Ice Maiden may twist in the way they are granted.
Surely a price will be demanded, he thought feverishly. Witches promise you sweets and then shove you in the oven.
Can the grown man Hans, the famous digter, outwit the Ice Maiden who has become the cold Snow Queen?
“Lost Girls” ― Darla, angry because it isn’t fair that Wendy does all the housework in Neverland and Peter Pan and the boys get to fight pirates, goes to bed and finds herself in Neverland. It’s even worse than she imagined: there’s a whole slew of girls (all of them dismissively called “Wendy” by Peter Pan and the Lost Boys) doing all of the cleaning for a group of extremely messy boys. Darla decides to lead a strike (“Being the daughter of a labor lawyer had its advantages”) in this delightful take on Peter Pan.
“Blown Away” ― Dorothy Gale does indeed get blown away by a cyclone in this story, narrated by Tom, one of the farm hands. When Dorothy returns seven years later, claiming that she’d experienced a memory loss and had been adopted by the Emerald Circus, Tom wonders about the truth of her story. It’s intriguing to trace the connections between this story and the original Wizard of Oz story by L. Frank Baum (the fate of Toto is eyebrow-raising), but more interesting is the insights into the various characters, like the long-hidden feelings of Tom’s wife Amelia.
“Evian Steel” ― This story is a type of prequel to the King Arthur legend, set on Ynis Evelonia, an island of women who make the finest swords known in the kingdom. Elaine is sent to the island as a young girl, to live there for the rest of her life. It’s a difficult transition, but gradually she settles in and begins to get to know the other girls and to learn the art of sword making. When the time comes for Elaine’s older friend Veree to go through an initiation process, Elaine wishes to stand by her in her trial.
In some of the other stories, Alice makes a return trip to Wonderland and has to face her greatest fear in the Jabberwock (“Tough Alice”), Beauty and the Beast channel O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” with an outcome that I definitely did not expect (“The Gift of the Magicians”), Robin Hood’s dying mother has a terrifying request to make of his nurse when her son is born (“Our Lady of the Greenwood”), and Emily Dickinson meets … an unexpectedly inspiring space alien (“Sister Emily’s Lightship”). It’s a varied and imaginative collection.
A few of these stories, like “The Bird,” in which Edgar and his young, ailing wife discuss their bothersome pet raven, are vignettes, glimpses of events in a character’s life, rich with imagery but perhaps too brief or one-note to make a lasting impression. On the other hand, “Wonder Land,” though even shorter, packs a sensual, feminist punch in three pages.
Except for “The Bird,” these are previously published stories; for example, four of them appeared in an earlier Yolen short fiction collection, Sister Emily’s Lightship and Other Stories. Here, though, each story is accompanied by Yolen’s insightful story notes at the end of this collection, and by a blank verse poem (most of which are new) that relates topically or thematically to that story. For example, “Tough Alice,” in which Alice desperately battles the Jabberwock, is accompanied by this thought-provoking poem:
Managing Your Flamingo
So there she is, Alice underground,
life more complex than imagined.
A game, she’s told, though without
rules or white lines or a sense of finality.
They hand her a bird, the pink of longing,
beak as sharp as an executioner’s sword,
its gangle of legs tangling her skirt.
The queen growls: Manage your flamingo,
and the others shout: Play on, play through.
As if it were life.
As perhaps it is.
The Emerald Circus is a circus worth visiting and revisiting from time to time.
To my surprise — this sort of thing doesn’t always happen — Tadiana’s favorite stories in Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus were also mine. “Andersen’s Witch” and “Lost Girls” were two fantastic stories, stepping off from their source materials while retaining a very definite Yolen flair. “Blown Away” and “Evian Steel” were just as familiar-but-original, and I think “Evian Steel” may be my new favorite story about the Isle of Avalon. Had every other story been as strong as these four, this collection would be an easy 5-star from me.
Many of the other stories felt almost-finished, like they needed just a touch more kneading or room to expand. “A Knot of Toads,” in particular, could have been a powerful story about accidental misunderstandings, and history echoing through the present, but I kept thinking that I’d misread something or missed a key detail that just wasn’t provided in the text. “Tough Girl” and “Rabbit Hole” explore different times in Alice’s life; “Tough Girl” is more linear and appealed to me more strongly than “Rabbit Hole,” though that may be my own discomfort with regards to Mr. Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson and the real-life Alice Liddell.
Another instance of “it’s not you, it’s me,” was “The Confession of Brother Blaise,” which is both an origin story for the wizard Merlin and Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century monk who wrote the laughably inaccurate History of the Kings of Britain, a text which erroneously informed subsequent centuries of Arthurian legends and stories. It was hard for me to suspend disbelief and set aside my knowledge that the “real” Arthur lived sometime between the 5th and 6th centuries CE, or just how much fiddle-faddle Geoffrey of Monmouth invented out of whole cloth and tried to pass off as sincere fact. However, I am fully aware that this is a problem specific to my experience, and my guess is that most other readers will focus on Yolen’s turns of phrase and the slow way Brother Blaise’s painful, terrifying tale is drawn out of him.
The ending of “The Gift of the Magicians” was completely unexpected, befitting anything inspired by O. Henry, but a little too short, as was the case with “The Bird.” I needed to read “Wonder Land” twice before I realized that it wasn’t a third Alice in Wonderland story, but that source was definitely an influence, along with “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Your mileage may vary on the author’s notes for each story; I generally find insight into an author’s creative process to be fascinating, and that was certainly the case in The Emerald Circus. Yolen writes honestly about her difficulties in finishing projects or meeting deadlines, as well as her own insecurities and triumphs. The blank- and free verse poems provided an additional level of insight into how Yolen considers her characters from multiple angles.
All in all, The Emerald Circus was fascinating and enjoyable, and there are certainly a few stories that I’ll be coming back to again and again.