Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales

Troll’s Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales is the third collection of fairy tale retellings for younger readers edited by the truly fabulous editorial team of Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the first collection being A Wolf at the Door (2000) and the second Swan Sister (2003).

The premise of Troll’s Eye View is to retell fairy tales from the point of view of fairy tale villains — the witch, the wolf, the troll, the evil fairy godmother, etc. — and this premise seems to have provided a key to unlocking a Pandora’s box of stories, with a few coming along at the very end proving to be the most fearsome of the whole lot. In some cases this topsy-turvy worldview results in stories which are, in style and tone, by turns humorous, whimsical, or cautionary in making their point about not judging people by appearance.

In a handful of cases the resulting tales are stunningly, even unsettlingly, dark and beautiful, epitomizing what fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar has described as the “beauty and terror” of fairy tales.

The anthology opens with a story by Delia Sherman, which in my mind is one of the most delightful ways to begin any fantasy anthology. And speaking of delightful ways to begin, one would have to be a much stronger willed bibliophile than myself to resist the allure of the opening lines of “Wizard’s Apprentice”:

There’s an Evil Wizard living in Dahoe, Maine. It says so, on the sign hanging outside his shop:

Evil Wizard Books Z. Smallbone, Prop.

Of course, living in a bookstore provides irresistible temptations for the wizard’s apprentice and, inverting the traditional fairy tale, this retelling demonstrates the value of curiosity in envisioning possibilities for ourselves, even when things appear to be darkest.

Wendy Froud’s poem, “Faery Tales,” is another story which provides insight into the often ambiguous nature of fairy tales’s magical beings, who are sources of both gifts and curses:

My gifts, my curses.
Prince to frog, frog to prince,
iron shoes and feet that dance
and dance and dance
and I like it both ways. . . .

Neil Gaiman’s poem, Observing the Formalities,” offers another insight into the character of the evil fairy godmother, who in this case is really just the fairy equivalent of an elderly great-aunt bemoaning the decline of good manners and good breeding:

As you know, I wasn’t invited to the Christening. Get over it, you repeat.
But it’s the little formalities that keep the world turning.

Peter Beagle’s humorous “Up the Down Beanstalk,” is a humorous retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” from the perspective of the giant’s wife, who also spends her fair share of time lamenting the poor manners of today’s wild youth while being interviewed for the local newspaper.

Putting the proverbial slipper on the other foot, “Molly” by Midori Snyder illustrates what happens when a family man — or, in this case, family troll — encounters a greedy and spiteful girl who envies his happy family life as much as his gold and magical possessions.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Rags and Riches” is another tale about a young girl who longs for the fine things she sees fall easily into the hands of others while she herself works for scraps from the time she is a child. This retelling of “The Goose Girl” provides a sympathetic portrayal of the servant girl who simply states “Some people live in sunlight, and others of us live in the dark.”

“Castle Othello,” Nancy Farmer’s retelling of the “Bluebeard” story, and Michael Cadnum’s “‘Skin,” a retelling of “Rumplestiltskin,” both rewrite the traditional fairy tale villains as beings who, if they possess their own fatal weaknesses, they also possess generosity and a certain skewed sense of honor.

Catherynne M. Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture” is one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the collection. I won’t say which fairy tale it is based upon, because a great deal of its power comes from its poetic and mysterious beginning. Along with Kelly Link’s even darker “The Cinderella Game,” “A Delicate Architecture” is a must-read for those who find themselves fascinated by the dark fairy tale and its ability to express those experiences of childhood which often go unspoken because they do so much to complicate our cultural expectations for unproblematical relationships between parents and children: the betrayals and feelings of abandonment by those we trust most, the sense of helplessness in the face of neglect and cruelty, the way in which feelings of power and powerlessness, so often at the heart of the desire to be good and the desire to be bad, become twisted up in one another.

These confused and confusing emotions are most fully expressed in the final story in the collection, “The Cinderella Game” by Kelly Link. In this story, two antagonistic step-siblings bicker over interpretations of Cinderella during a game which is not really a game, but a moment when the fairy tale seems to take control of each of them, forcing each to express the thoughts and feelings which they have been trying to keep inside. All their conflicting feelings about each other and their parents, their opposing desires to be integrated into the family and to give vent to their own resentments at being forced to be part of this patchwork family, all of these confessions and expressions come pouring out as if they are the victims of some magical spell to tell the truth.

At one point, the older boy says to his half-sister “This is the new, improved version. No fairy godmother. No prince. No glass slipper. No happy ending. . . .” While he originally says this in a moment of anger, it ultimately turns out to be the truth. There is no magical happy ending for this pair of children, but they do come to realize that, if there is no such thing as a magical happy ending, then it is up to both of them to do the best they can with the imperfect people who are part of their unwished-for family.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Troll’s Eye View also includes stories by such writers as Jane Yolen, Holly Black, Garth Nix, Ellen Kushner, and Joseph Stanton. The variety of the characters and the quality of the writing in these fifteen fairy tales should make this book appealing reading for everyone and, although an inner leaf of the book lists its intended audience as grades four and up or ages nine and up, fairy tale lovers of all ages should pick up a copy.

(Viking Juvenile, 2009)

About

Kestrell Rath, reviewer, is a bibliophile, owner of the Blind Bookworm page, and runs a mailing list for blind readers using new technology. She attends college in Boston.