Fairy Tales, Poetry, Immigrants, and Feminism: Theodora Goss – Snow White Learns Witchcraft

I’ve been a fan of Theodora Goss’ writing ever since I picked up her gorgeous collection In the Forest of Forgetting. The author showed that she’s also really good at novels (which reminds me, I have to read the sequels to The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter!), and then she came back again with a mix of short fiction and poetry which promptly won her a Mythopoeic Award.

by Theodora Goss

Published: Mythic Delirium Books, 2019
276 pages
Short fiction collection
My rating:

Opening line: One day she looked into her mother’s mirror,
The face looing back was unavoidably old,
with wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.

A young woman hunts for her wayward shadow at the school where she first learned magic—while another faces a test she never studied for as ice envelopes the world. The tasks assigned a bookish boy lead him to fateful encounters with lizards, owls, trolls and a feisty, sarcastic cat. A bear wedding is cause for celebration, the spinning wheel and the tower in the briar hedge get to tell their own stories, and a kitchenmaid finds out that a lost princess is more than she seems. The sea witch reveals what she hoped to gain when she took the mermaid’s voice. A wiser Snow White sets out to craft herself a new tale.

In these eight stories and twenty-three poems, World Fantasy Award winner Theodora Goss retells and recasts fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, always lyrical, the works gathered in Snow White Learns Witchcraft re-center and empower the women at the heart of these timeless narratives.

As someone who doesn’t easily like poetry, not even from my most favorite of authors, I will be focusing much more on the prose stories found in this collection. But I do want to say that most poems aren’t the rhyming type anyway and can be read like very, very short stories. For that reason, I quite enjoyed many of them, even though they are usually over too quickly for me to have any deep feelings about them. But the stories… The stories, I tell you!

Goss tackles many of the most well-known fairy tales such as Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Snow Queen. But she also picks up some lesser known ones, like Frau Holle (known as Mother Holle in English, I think) or The White Cat. So whether you’re a veteran of fairy tales and retellings or coming to this pretty new, there will be elements you recognize and there will be things that are few and fresh to you. In those cases where very well-known tales are respun, we usually get an interesting shift in perspective. And by “interesting”, I mean something more than just the villain’s POV – although there is that, too.

So what makes Goss’s way of twisting and retelling fairy tales any different or better than the myriad other versions out there? It’s a question of taste, certainly, but I loved how I thought I mostly knew where the story was going twist-wise and then things happened a little differently, after all. It’s not like the tales are filled with shocking twists or surprise moments, not at all. It’s just that the little tweaks work really well and it is precisely their subtlety that makes them shine.

I also liked how migration is a quiet thread that runs through the collection and it makes sense given the author’s Hungarian roots. Some stories focus more on giving an actual immigrant’s perspective, others just mention it briefly, yet others don’t touch on the topic at all. But it was nice reading about Baba Yaga as well as Snow White’s evil stepmother (who’s not really evil and doesn’t care that much about beauty in the first place).
It’s also quite wonderful how the female characters in this collection manage to be feminist without having to make any overly grand gestures. Sometimes it’s as simple as not being hateful to another woman, sometimes it’s realizing that letting your beauty be judged by men and yourself be put into competition with people who should be your allies (read: other women) is stupid and you’re just not going to play along! (After having just read Iron Widow which showed the complete opposite, this was a refreshing and delightful contrast for me.)

This book was also one of those rare occasions when I get to read a fairy tale that is completely new to me. “Blanchefleur” is a retelling of “The White Cat”, a fairy tale I had heard of but never actually read myself. So it was extra nice to discover, recognizing all the usual fairy tale trappings (rule of three, penniless boy rising up to great heights, etc.) but in a new and interesting way. I also love how, in fairy tales, we don’t question when cats speak to us or do the laundry. And suddenly just aren’t cats at all, but human-looking women.

This collection isn’t one that makes a big bang. Its strength is in its simplicity, its subtle twists, its loving care for the characters that we otherwise know to be rather shallow and one-dimensional. Goss stayed true to herself and still manages to create atmosphere using very few words, but she has also grown so much! Her stories read like fairy tales that have grown up a bit, fairy tales that know what they are and that are questioning themselves and their purpose. And that, without epic battles or shocking twists, makes for a delightful reading experience.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!


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