After I finished The Secret Service, I wanted to work on shorter pieces. Having spent years inventing one large and complex alternative-history world, I hoped to explore more various provinces of the fabulist kingdom. I decided to try my hand at the Grimms’ tales, and, dissatisfied with psychoanalytical readings of them, to follow the lines of experience in these tales and so delve more deeply into their key images, and particularly the passages that represent moments where the protagonist is transformed out of a narrow human role into something much broader. I was influenced in my approach by Robert Darnton’s “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meanings of Mother Goose” and the microhistorians Carlo Ginzburg and Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie.
The publisher wrote:
Reading these nine masterful tales, one feels as if one has uncovered a wondrous long-hidden manuscript; as if the Grimm brothers’ tales had been transcribed by Emily Dickinson, or as if Rimbaud had taken up fable-writing.
A young peasant lad outwits a murderous princess by transforming himself into a small, dazzling beast; a princess’ s suitor uncovers the secret of how she and her sisters wear out their dancing slippers each night; a young woman renowned for her cleverness discovers the dangers of too much foresight; the saints of a cathedral debate with the gargoyles on the spires concerning the design of the church. Walker plays with our foreknowledge of these ancient tales—her surpassingly rich description and fantastic, eccentric plottings create some of the most original stories of our time.
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… (Walker’s) haunting images… fuse the past with the present….Her tales…renew the fairy-tale tradition by undermining the authoritative voice of the Grimms’ tradition and exposing problems that are directly related to our present troubled times and cannot be easily resolved.
—Jack Zipes, “Recent Trends in the
Contemporary American Fairy Tale”
Metamorphoses of castigation, of appeasement, of flight, of preservation: every variety of metamorphosis found in the texts of the ancients serves an apparently naive, but perfectly controlled, narrativity. Walker does not exploit this solely for the production of the marvelous: into her legendary canvas she slips many a metafictional thread which the eye must follow with attention… It can hardly be doubted that beyond sumptuously written texts which tempt us to delightful readings, beyond the ancient wonders of rediscovered childhood, what we are invited to witness is the metamorphosis of the fairy tale. (Complete essay on JStor)
—Marc Chénetier, New Literary History
The nine tales in this collection, Walker’s first published work, are elegantly gaudy revivifications of folk/fairy stories in a kind of jeweled, poetic prose. Walker’s sentences grow and ramify as luxuriantly as vines in an enchanted wood. In each tale, familiar motifs lie embedded, recombined and transformed through the alchemy of the author’s heady imagination. Outstanding is “Arnaud’s Nixie,’ a variation of the Cupid and Psyche legend, where Esperte undergoes ordeals and quests to recover her darling Arnaud, snatched from her by a cruel lady of the lake. Women who jam their blistered feet into a slipper to catch a melancholy prince’s attention turn up in the exquisite ‘Ashiepattle,’ a tale whose heroine has birdlike affinities, wears a bizarrely furred and feathered gown, and flutters high in a dovecote. The despised, poor or clumsy suitor who wins a princess through some special gift or charm appears in ‘The Unseen Soldier,’ and in the title story. ‘The Contract with the Beast,’ a labyrinthine adventure echoing the tale of Beauty and the Beast, has a winsome hedgehog for its hero. Deliciously quirky twists and unexpected endings increase the reader’s surprise and delight.