Heather Harris Bergevin: Fairy Tales and Lawless Women

Is is poetry week at AML! Heather Harris Bergevin’s poetry collection Lawless Women will be published later this month by BCC Press. BCC Press says, “In these poems, we encounter some of the “bad girls” from literature and history: Medea, Helen of Troy, Vashti, Gothel (Rapunzel’s witchy mom), Snow White’s stepmother, and la belle dame sans merci. But we get to hear their side of the story, all processed through the marvelous mind of one of Mormonism’s most unique and engaging poetic talents.” In a guest post, Heather describes her interest in and difficulty with fairy tales. 

When I was ten, our library owned a set of gorgeous books, all colors of the rainbow with gold detailed, beautifully illustrated covers. Irresistible, Andrew Lang’s books of fairy tales became foundational to my library obsession. The passing of stories over campfires, at hearthsides, generations upon generations ago, transcribed and written for my enjoyment–this was a real magic. Hero’s Quests and the Golden Three became indelibly part of my psyche, even though, as we all know, many of the old tales simply don’t make a lot of sense. Rarely do you get a new wife from peeling an orange and her appearing from the pips. Generally you don’t get to be a famous musician, even if you are a cat standing on the back of a dog, standing on the back of a donkey. I chalked the parts of the tales which don’t make sense (why can’t Cinderella’s Prince recognize her? I mean, really?) to magic and things lost to multiple retellings. I graduated to many other authors, and many other stories, but the fairy tales linger.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took me roughly forty years to realize that while there were a multitude of storytellers passing along variations of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood from trade routes and children’s bedsides, in every possible language, almost (but not quite exclusively) the educated scholars who were transcribing and publishing those the records I read were, well, older white guys. Generally older, scholarly educated researchers, actually. I love older white guys. I love scholarly researchers. Yet, somehow, this seemed problematic.

I wanted all of the stories, but I know that stories get changed and lost within the telling. There are Appalachian folktales which closely resemble Jack and the Beanstalk, and a tale recorded from India which is strikingly similar to the European fairytale, “The White Cat.” If the stories are only told about and from the (albeit often good) perspective of the men involved, recorded by men, what might get lost in the telling?

What do we lose from not hearing women’s voices?

I want to hear from a multitude of genders, races, cultures, and languages. I want to hear what it’s like to grow up as poor as Jack, or as rich as Jack. I adore all the variations of the stories, because they speak often not only of the events in the story themselves, but of the language, culture, and anthropology of the people.

In short, you cannot separate a story from its voices. Everything, in the end, is fairy tales. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hellman, Austen, Hughes–everything we write filters through the story of the author and culture which creates it.

What if all stepmothers weren’t actually evil? What if the witches at the edge of the forest were actually midwives and interested in herbology? Could the hermit just be introverted? What is up with randomly running into a beggar in the woods and NOT sharing your lunch….everybody knows that’s a fairy in disguise. Don’t, by all that is holy, hurt a Rowan tree. What was it like to come into the town abandoned by fleeing settlers?

In two hundred, four hundred years, which of our own stories will survive, and who will be our Myth bearing heroes?

Maybe, just maybe, as with all stories, we read ourselves into them, with all of our flaws and fallibilities. I’d never imprison my kid in a tower. I’d never wear glass shoes (or fur ones, which sounds particularly strange for dancing). I’d never want to live in a forest with a baker’s half dozen of random guys I’d never met. I’d certainly never tell somebody to cut out a young princesses’ heart and bring it back as proof she is dead.

The more I read in history, though, the more I see there are those who might, those who have, and those who do.

The original stories are dark.  My versions are not quite so dismal, because hopefully, neither am I.  We read ourselves into stories, and we can read ourselves out of them. Not every dragon is trying to kill you…some of them just don’t want you to steal their stuff.

This book is that journey. Maybe you believe the witch’s point of view. Maybe you don’t. Maybe she lies, and maybe the king did, or maybe they both have, unwittingly. I hope it’s interesting to try to peer into the stories, from a far distance, and realize that the past might not be as magical, or as strange, as we sometimes make it out to be, and yet somehow is both more magical and more strange because of this.

I hope you enjoy.

Isabella Eleanor to Perrault

Look
here’s the thing: I’m not
that forgettable. I’ve been
known to turn heads, even
in rags, even wearing
the most uncomfortable of
shoes and clothes –I’m just
a looker. And yet,
there it is– he couldn’t
identify my face in a crowd,
even a crowd of one, couldn’t
describe my nose, my eyes,
though he can see them.
Yet, he fell
almost on sight, in love,
(face blindness not being
diagnosable in these
sixteen hundreds.) I don’t mind-
wouldn’t you rather, after
decades of being memorable
or Prettiness (Such
a nice face), pettiness talking
behind your back, to instead
know with absolute certainty
he loves your mind? It’s
not like he can’t see
my facial features, but can’t ever
remember specifics. I change
my hair, he might pass
accidentally by me, his wife,
in the street–except my soul, my vocal
cadence, lilt, my ideas, ideals, my style,
the way I hold my shoulders, those
cannot be hidden by voluminous
skirts or new court styles and wigs.
and really,
isn’t it better, to love a mind, a heart,
a soul, rather than prefer
a face and a Venetian
glass slipper.

4 Thoughts on “Heather Harris Bergevin: Fairy Tales and Lawless Women

  1. Olivia Meikle on December 2, 2017 at 2:37 pm said:

    I am SO thrilled for this release. I’ve been lucky enough to read some of Heather Harris Bergevin’s work and it’s incredible. I strongly recommend this one.

  2. Alysa Revell on December 3, 2017 at 11:27 am said:

    As another fairy tale enthusiast, I’ve noticed how those stories have impacted my way of looking at the world. Our collective feelings as a human tribe have been passed down with them. Part of their brilliance is their ability to change as societies did. HHB’s collection is the natural evolution of the fairy tale. Told from the female characters point of view, as society finally – FINALLY! – begins to hear and believe women’s voices.

  3. Sherilyn on December 4, 2017 at 8:45 am said:

    I love this innovative concept—an original take on the familiar that just feels right. Congratulations and thank you, Heather.

  4. Harlow Clark on December 11, 2017 at 9:52 pm said:

    “Not every dragon is trying to kill you…some of them just don’t want you to steal their stuff.”

    Bravo. My oldest son, Mason Wheeler, has a series of novels on his website paultwister.com. He’s midway through the fourth now, with lots of observations about dragons and intrigue between dragon factions, and dragon hordes and curses on dragon treasure. He also has some pages discussing TV tropes (our fairy tales) in the stories.

    I like the poem, too. The point about face blindness is interesting. I wonder what they called the condition, or how they described it.

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