"Fairy Tale" by Gardner Dozois: An Appreciation by Jeffrey Ford
The first story I ever published with Ellen was back in 1999, on her equally excellent website, Event Horizon. After working with her for the first time on that story, I knew I’d found an editor who shared my vision of fantastic fiction and someone from whom I could learn a great deal. The story I refer to was “At Reparata.” It got some nice notice and was chosen by Terri Windling for the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In reviewing “At Reparata” a couple of the reviewers remarked as to how it “turned the conventions of the Fairy Tale on their head.” I’m not exactly sure it turned conventions on their head, but if it did, then Gardner Dozois’s “Fairy Tale,” which Ellen later published on SCI FICTION, took those same conventions, grabbed them roughly by the collar, smacked them around, and kicked them squarely in the ass. “Fairy Tale” subjects the style, structure, and intent of the fairy tale to a Hobbesian wake-up call. The story is like a fish hook in the Little Mermaid’s eye, the remains of Jack on the sole of the giant’s shoe, Rapunzel with alopecia. With great precision and artifice Dozois tantalizes us by promising the fulfillment of our deepest expectations of this form and then one by one undercuts them by prying open the usually hermetically sealed world of fantasy and letting reality slither in.
Dozois captures the voice of the fairy tale perfectly and the writing is truly beautiful. Here’s a paragraph in a single sentence that holds all the flowing art of the oral tradition so often associated with these types of tales:
The Romans had been here once, and as you followed the only road across the empty steppe toward town, you would pass the broken white marble pillars they had left behind, as well as a vine-overgrown fane where, in another story, you might have ventured forth at night to view for yourself the strange lights that local legends say haunt the spot, and perhaps, your heart in your throat, glimpsed the misty shapes of ancient pagan gods as they flitted among the ruined columns . . . but this isn't that kind of story.
As with the paragraph above, time after time, he entertains the possibility of the expected fairy tale convention--a village, a castle, a good king, an evil step mother, a true love, a prince, and a Cinderella figure in the character of Eleanor--only to slowly remove it from the table and replace it with the same image stripped of the illusion of fantasy. The village is really only a town; the castle is a castle but it is falling apart, the king is not really good, in fact, he’s just not so bad to his peasants in order to get more work out of them; the evil step mother is an alcoholic, who’s neither good nor bad but a victim of circumstance and her own failures; Eleanor’s true love is, in reality, a big, dumb working stiff, the prince is a spoiled brat with too much power, a rapist, who answers to no one; and Eleanor is, in the end, merely like us in that she too approaches life with a head full of fairy tale dreams that rather quickly, upon entering the world, are stripped away.
This process that takes place throughout the story would all be for naught if Dozois camped it up or went for the easy laugh, but instead he manages to restrain the tone in the narrator’s voice so that there’s a kind of world weariness in it. As if he were saying, “Look, it would be really cool if this is the way it was, but, alas, you only get that in Disney films.” The narrator comes across as if he wishes he could tell you one of those fine illusory tales, but the only one he has to tell is one in which Cinderella is nearly raped by the Prince and must flee for her life.
When I first read this story, I had a physical reaction to it. This is rare for me. It wasn’t anything dramatic, no puking or headache, but I felt it viscerally. At the same time, I was, in a way, intellectually enchanted by Dozois’s deconstruction of the form. An interesting effect. One of the delights of the piece is that it is not unremittingly dark. At the end, you come to the realization, as does the character Eleanor, that although the world we venture into will not support fairy tale illusions, there are pleasures and comforts and meaning to be had in a life without illusion. The way the fiction manages to evoke this epiphany is ingenious. Although I’ve given away something of the end, the marvels and surprises of this story exist throughout it, so in no way have I ruined your reading experience.
I’ve read this story many times over the past few years, and when my writing students tell me they want to write fantasy, I point them to it, not in order to dissuade them from writing fantasy, but because it’s a master class in the anatomy of a fairy tale. As much as it is a deconstruction, it is also, in the intensity with which it scrutinizes the form, a celebration of it.
Link to story.