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‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ Retold by Anthea Bell, and More

November 09, 2015

Fairy tale retellings: Climb up a pile of these revamped, remixed and rehabilitated classics and we reach high enough to wake the giant. And yet, no matter how much we empower the princess, humanize the witch and emasculate the prince, or how earnestly we whack and whittle these tales to reflect us, we seem only to make the original tales stronger.

At first glance, a new version of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” seems to stand apart from the glut of retellings by choosing not to revise at all. Anthea Bell’s text faithfully recounts the Russian fairy tale about a young girl left with a magical doll by her dying mother, who vows that the doll will look after her in difficult times. Vasilisa’s father remarries a cruel woman who sends her stepdaughter on an errand to the witch Baba Yaga, expecting her never to return. With the help of her magical doll, Vasilisa passes Baba Yaga’s tests and earns the twin totems of Ever After: revenge on her tormentors and a rich, handsome prince.

Bell and the illustrator, Anna Morgunova, might believe “Vasilisa the Beautiful” stands the test of time, but they have their work cut out. First, there’s that title. In an era when even Disney must thaw frozen, passive princesses, Vasilisa is blond, meek and barely lifts a finger. Even with subtle additions emphasizing her courage, it’s the doll that’s the hero, whisking through Baba Yaga’s tasks, keeping her owner safe, and ensuring she finds her prince. (How Vasilisa wins him is itself sticky — he marries her because she’s pretty and a good seamstress. Angela Carter would have picked his bones clean.)

But Morgunova’s illustrations hint at a rich inner life beneath the surface. With each image set askew, often superimposed against a starry sky, the effect is to emphasize all the characters’ powerlessness in Baba Yaga’s great forest. Vasilisa is always falling, reeling or sprawling; birds and fish dwarf humans in their size; and even Baba Yaga herself never fully appears, drawn only as feathers and fog, as if she’s half Mother Earth and half Zen harpy. The art, so timeless and raw, offers a charged dream-life that suggests the primal nerve Vasilisa’s story strikes in Morgunova is far stronger than the lure of revisionism.

In contrast, Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” intended for a young adult audience, is nothing but revision. Here, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are contemporaries, with the latter postponing her marriage to rescue the slumbering princess from a wicked fairy. The iconography is familiar — sidekick dwarves, thorn-covered castle, a bitter old witch — but Gaiman’s mash-up is unabashedly feminist. The prince sulks over the delayed wedding, while Snow White dons chain mail and rides out to save the day. The gnarled, ugly witch is certainly more than she seems. And the princely kiss that wakes a sleeping beauty doesn’t involve a prince at all.

Plenty of authors have tried such tactics, only to succumb to another hazard of retelling — the niggling feeling that when all is said and done, what we’re reading is souped-up fan fiction. But Gaiman knows fairy tales in his bones, and his work is so sonically tuned that it breathes on its own from the first line (“It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it”). What’s most remarkable about “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” besides its string of expert twists, is how it feels told rather than written. Time is elusive, magic is unexplained, personal details ignored (“Names are in short supply in this telling,” the narrator affirms).

Adding to the wonder are Chris Riddell’s dazzling illustrations, black-and-white with flashes of gold, so detailed in their dark imagination that, at times, Gaiman’s story seems less a fairy tale and more a bad, beautiful dream. Read this to a child alongside another Grimms tale and he will no doubt think this is the older story.

In “The Most Wonderful Thing in the World,” Vivian French grapples with a third hazard of fairy tale retellings: fairy tale structure itself. Yearning royals seeking the most wonderful thing in the world is its own subgenre of folklore, with the seekers bounding to the ends of the earth only to find that what they’ve been hunting was waiting at home all along. These stories skew very young, for a child with even the slightest nose for fairy tales can’t help seeing the ending in the setup. Yet, like Bell and Morgunova, French bets on a traditional telling of the tale, even if tweeness hangs over it like a Damoclean sword.

Lucia is an overprotected princess, but when the king and queen realize she will one day lead their kingdom, they conclude she will need a husband (those who protest this conclusion won’t find sympathy here). They consult the wisest man in the kingdom, who advises them to “find the young man who can show you the most wonderful thing in the world.” While the royal couple entertain would-be suitors, Lucia escapes the palace and asks Salvatore, the wise man’s son, to show her the city. The king and queen come up short; Lucia and Salvatore find love, and Salvatore offers Lucia as the answer to the riddle and wins her hand.

It’s as rarefied as it sounds, but French is a skilled storyteller, and with the help of Angela Barrett’s illustrations invoking steampunk, Edwardian style and a gilded Venice, she reminds us how fresh a fairy tale can feel in the right hands. The king and queen’s quest slyly moves beyond the mundane — a hundred roses, a snow-white horse — to shimmering fantasies: an aquatic car, a piece of frozen sky, a blue cheetah whose fur reflects a bat-filled sky. In her first trip out of the palace, Lucia explores not a fusty medieval kingdom, but a world of “glittering arcades” and “velvet-curtained mansions,” stirring the thought that the most wonderful thing in the world might indeed be a European city free of tourists. It’s so alluring a tapestry that when the final revelation takes place in a quiet fairy-tale wood, we feel palpable relief. Perhaps our quest to reinvigorate classic stories is no different from the king and queen’s. Again and again, we stray in search of better fortune, only to find our way back home.

VASILISA THE BEAUTIFUL
Retold by Anthea Bell
Illustrated by Anna Morgunova
46 pp. Minedition. $19.99. (Picture book; ages 5 and up)

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE
By Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
69 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $19.99. (Young adult; ages 13 and up)

THE MOST WONDERFUL THING IN THE WORLD
By Vivian French
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
32 pp. Candlewick Press. $18.99. (Picture book; ages 4 and up)

Review by the NY Times