Sunday, April 26, 2015

Two early '80s fairy tales by Tanith Lee: "Wolfland" & "Paid Piper"

Yesterday I talked your ear off about two Tanith Lee stories from the late 1970s, tales full of odd sex, ambiguous morality and references to Christianity.  Here comes round two, set in the early 1980s!  I read "Wolfland" and "Paid Piper" in two issues from the stack of copies of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction I got last year at the Des Moines flea market.  Both pieces are reworkings of traditional fairy tales.

"Wolfland" (1980)

When I realized that "Wolfland," which I read in the October 1980 issue of F&SF, was a version of "Little Red Riding Hood" I put the magazine down and read the Wikipedia article on the fairy tale as well as various translations of the versions of the story by Frenchman Charles Perrault and Germans Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm at Gutenberg.org.

"Wolfland" was selected for DAW's Year's Best Fantasy Stories 7, edited by Arthur Saha, and appeared in Lee's own Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer) as well as fairy tale scholar Jack Zipe's Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England.

Sixteen-year-old Lisel is a pretty French girl enjoying the social life of the city, going to balls and breaking hearts.  Then comes a summons from her maternal grandmother, known as "The Matriarch Anna," who lives in a chateau in the woods.  Grandma is so rich that Lisel cannot refuse the invite--she doesn't want to risk losing that sweet inheritance!

Lee packs this novelet with great images.  Very reminiscent of that early scene in Dracula, Lisel is picked up by a carriage late at night in the woods, and the carriage is escorted by dozens of wolves on its way to the chateau.  Her grandmother has a worshipful servant, a misshapen dwarf with an angelic face who goes by the name of "Beautiful."  Grandma tells Lisel the story of how Grandpa, long dead, was a sadist who beat and whipped her for pleasure and almost killed Lisel's mother.  For aid, Grandma turned to the wolf goddess of the north!  The chateau lies in an area imbued with wolf-magic, and when Grandma ate certain yellow flowers on the night of the full moon she became a werewolf and achieved her revenge on Grandpa!

Victoria Poyser's depiction of Matriarch Anna
on that fateful night
Lee lays a little Lamarkism on us--Lisel carries dormant in her blood the ability to become a werewolf herself, she need only eat some of those flowers.  What's that?  That tart yellow wine she has been drinking while she listened to Grandma's wacky story is made from those flowers?  I guess Lisel doesn't get any choice in the matter!

Grandma explains that she fears going to Hell for her lycanthropic ways, but knows the wolf goddess will protect her soul after she dies if offered a replacement. Lisel is that replacement--she won't be spending her evenings at city balls anymore, but in the black woods, eating raw meat!

"Wolfland" is a pretty good horror story with many striking images, feminist overtones ("The marriage vow is a chain that may not be broken..." says Grandma, "No law supports a wife.  I could only kill him....") and the outre erotic notes we often find in Lee's work (Lisel, a virgin, worries about being raped by coachmen and considers surrendering her body to "a hairy peasant" if he will help her escape, and the possibility is raised that Grandma took pleasure in the rough treatment meted out to her by her brutal husband--she certainly has a perverse sado-masochistic relationship with Beautiful the dwarf.)

Yesterday I complained that Lee's "Red as Blood" was distractingly similar to the original Snow White story, but I didn't feel that way about "Wolfland."  The story departs widely from the originals I read, and Lee spends quite a bit of time setting up distinct characters and moods in this considerably longer story.

I liked it.

"Paid Piper" (1981)      

In preparation for reading this caper, I read the Wikipedia page on the Pied Piper of Hamelin and reread Robert Browning's 1840s poem of that name. "Paid Piper" first appeared in the July 1981 issue of F&SF, and would later be included in the Red as Blood (or Tales From the Sisters Grimmer) collection.

The people of the village of Lime Tree worship the Rat God known as Ruar.  Ruar makes sure no vermin eat their crops (or so the villagers believe), so the villagers are prosperous  Every year there is a parade in which the priests carry the statue of the Rat God through every street in town, all the villagers trouping behind.  The Pied Piper, a handsome young man with old eyes, arrives on the day of the celebration, and offers his services.  He walks ahead of the procession, playing the best music anyone has ever heard, music that makes everybody happy.  At the end of the parade the leaders of the village offer the Piper 150 gold coins, the finest horse in the stables, and other treasures as payment for his fine performance.

The Piper, however, refuses this kind of payment.  Instead, he demands that the villagers of Lime Tree cease worshipping the Rat God and instead worship him.  The Pied Piper is a god, but he is in danger of dying if nobody worships him.  He tells the villagers that they can be happy and dance every day if they abandon Ruar and worship him.  When the people object that they have to work and make money, the Piper points out that the flowers and the stars don't make money, and lead beautiful lives.  (Presumably this is meant to remind the reader of "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.")  The people of Lime Tree don't find this logic any more convincing than I do, and drive the Piper out of town. The Piper vows revenge.

No live children are born in Lime Tree after the Piper leaves, and within a few years the trees die and the river silts up.  The town is devastated because it chose the god of money over the god of love.

"Paid Piper" is, apparently, an attack on middle-class values and capitalism.  The story's main character is Cleci, a teenaged girl, the daughter of a washerwoman, and Lee gives several examples of how she suffers from class snobbery and the dreaded income inequality.  The daughters of middle-class people (like the baker and miller) are mean to Cleci and have nicer clothes, rich people have pet white rats but poor Cleci can't afford to buy one, positions in the priesthood go only to wealthier villagers, etc. (When the piper is playing, during the parade, the middle-class girls are nice to Cleci, even giving her a ribbon to wear.)

When Lime Tree goes down the tubes and her mother dies from overwork, Cleci, whom the Pied Piper exempted from his curse, leaves, but not before setting up a shrine to the Piper.  She returns periodically to the shrine, and teaches her children to worship the Piper, so that he might live on.  Cleci feels pity for the Piper, knowing that if the god of love was acting like the god of being-a-jerk when he threatened and then ruined the villagers, it was only because a god reflects the values of the mortals who created him, and the members of the human race have become stupid and cruel because of their lust for money.

The politics and economics of this story made me groan.  In fact, the comparison of middle-class people to rats reminded me of The Eternal Jew, the famous Nazi propaganda movie.  Of course, I doubt The Eternal Jew ever entered Lee's head while writing "Paid Piper," and I expect few readers would think of it either, and instead simply enjoy seeing the bourgeoisie get it in the neck ("toppled" is the word that is coming to mind today for some reason) like they do in so much fiction and public discourse, but it disturbed me a little.

Beyond the politics, I think "Paid Piper" is inferior to the other three fairy-tale style stories of Lee's I read last week.  While it is well-constructed and well-written, "The Paid Piper" lacks any of the ingredients, like emotional power, moral ambiguity, surprises and vivid imagery, that made the "The Demoness," "Red as Blood," and "Wolfland" stand out.  I'm giving "Paid Piper" a marginally positive grade, though maybe people who feel our society is too materialistic and think that "all you need is love" (and that materialistic women deserve to be sterilized) will appreciate it.

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There's lots more Tanith Lee and fantasy in my future, but next up will be a change of pace as I head off into space with Poul Anderson, destination: Satan's World.

3 comments:

  1. Michael Swanwick posted a very nice tribute to Tanith Lee on his "Flogging Babel" blog this morning (5/26/2015): http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/2015/05/tanith-lee-sorceress.html

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  2. Michael Swanwick posted a very nice tribute to Tanith Lee on his "Flogging Babel" blog this morning (5/26/2015): http://floggingbabel.blogspot.com/2015/05/tanith-lee-sorceress.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sad news. Lee was a special talent; her work is always worth reading thanks to her fine style and unique point of view, and again and again her stories have surprised me, made me think, and made me feel.

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