Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.
And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time.But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.
Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.
Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.
E.K. Johnston had several jobs and one vocation before she became a published writer. If she’s learned anything, it’s that things turn out weird sometimes, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Well, that and how to muscle through awkward fanfic because it’s about a pairing she likes.
E.K. Johnston is represented by Adams Literary
PLEASE WELCOME E K TO BOOKHOUNDS YA
So the thing about fairy-tales is that they have been around for a very, very long time. They were stories told around campfires by old women, tales carried from town to town by wandering merchants, currency, even, that could be spent anywhere from the market to the king’s own court. And because they were oral, because they were told from memory and from the heart, they changed. Before we called them fairy-tales, and certainly long before we wrote them down, change is what humans have done.
A good place to start is probably Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which aren’t fairy-tales at all (much like Beowulf, and also like The Arabian Nights). Homer didn’t write the stories. He didn’t even write them down (as he was blind). But he is credited with taking all of the assorted myths and legends and anecdotes, and putting them into the two stories we know today. He did this in Greek (ish), and much later his work was translated into English (and other languages besides), and even after centuries of scholarship, there are still things that he describes in detail that we don’t understand at all.
This is how stories are collected. A man (almost always) puts them together, and then uses them to push an agenda. With the Iliad and the Odyssey, it was piety and Greek superiority. The Aeniad, a few centuries later, was entirely constructed to make Rome look like Ancient Greece’s natural heir. And so on, and so on, until you get the Brothers Grimm wandering around Europe, collecting folk tales and using them to promote very, very Catholic ideas. They changed those stories. We can find versions older than theirs that are markedly different (if you don’t follow Ursula Vernon on tumblr, you probably should), where the women aren’t punished, and where the woods are still dangerous, but livable, so long as you treat them with respect.
I was five when The Little Mermaid came out, and I loved it so much. Like, it’s kind of embarrassing in hindsight. I was devastated when my sister told me the “real” ending. I felt it was desperately unfair. Fairy-tales, after all, were supposed to be happily ever after. That was the entire point. Years later, I would understand that the original Little Mermaid ending is a HEA, because if she’d married the prince and stayed human and died of old age, she wouldn’t have had a soul. But since she took the high road, turned to foam, became a Daughter of the Air, and did good works, she gets one. It’s an eternal happily ever after. Even Disney can hardly compete with it, except our values are different now.
We put more emphasis on life, on the one we have. We mend our families and we fall in love and we stay there (in the dream, at least). We took these horrific tales, which weren’t meant for children, and used them to teach different lessons. The Little Mermaid stopped being a story about redemption, and started being a story about striking out from home, taking risks, and becoming self-taught anthropologists. It’s beautiful.
But it’s the next step that really excites me; the step I’m honoured to be taking, along with other authors I greatly admire. Because Walt Disney, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, those Islamic scholars, Homer, all of them, were men.
And now it’s our turn.
In the YA section we have so many fairy-tales. They range from modern reimaginings to straight up retellings to excavations of stories most people have never heard of to combinations of several tales at once. They are dark and funny and swoony and happy, and I love them. All over the section, stories take those female characters who were punished, who never got to voice their motivations, who were just assigned a happily ever after and left, and dig in deep. They’re not written exclusively by women, but a lot of them are.
This brings me to The Arabian Nights, which is a collection of pre-Islamic folklore, curated for an Islamic audience. The frame story, which is the one I’ve reimagined in A Thousand Nights, features a king who murders his wives (because one time his first wife cheated on him, so now he can’t trust a woman once he knows she’s no longer a virgin), and does not murder Scheherazade, because she tells him stories and he needs to know how they end. She does this for 1,001 nights, or two and three-quarter years (enough time to bear three children…which she does), and then, because of her cleverness and her beauty, the king falls in love with her and decides his murdering days are over, and they live happily ever after.
Which I kind of took badly as a child, I’ll be honest. I thought Scheherazade deserved way better.
So no, I don’t think Disney has corrupted fairy-tales. And I’m not just saying that because they gave me such a pretty book. I’m saying it because you can’t corrupt a story that has more versions than there are primary candidates. The story was bent and reshaped long before Disney ever got it, and will be bent and reshaped by everyone who ever opens their mouth to say its words. The true gift of folklore is that it teaches us where we came from, makes us uncomfortable enough to realize we don’t want to stay there, and shows us that it’s possible for us to move forward.
If you really pay attention, if you read enough and talk to the people and listen when they answer your questions, they’ll even show you how.
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