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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed IV

For anyone just tuning in, this is the fourth and last segment of reviewing Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed. Mitzi chose fairy and folktales from diverse sources. These aren’t just Grimm brothers or Arabian Nights. There are Japanese,  Persian or Sanskrit, a cultural mosaic of stories from sources around the world.

Written in Sanskrit, “A Tale of the Parrot” is an Indian tale where a talking animal relates various lessons or stories, much as Shahrazad did to her husband. An emir’s daughter is wasting away and the Spanish Infanta comes to try a cure, and discovers the Turkish Khan’s (who wants to marry the girl) emissary stirring a cauldron with a stick. The stick is actually his penis, with which he “agitates” the contents of the cauldron. The Infanta helps stir only believing his penis to be a growing stick. Then she takes a cup of the “creamy” broth to the emir’s daughter to break the spell. Now, whether Szereto is completely ignorant of cleanliness taboos of Arabic lands or not, the cleanliness taboos of Europeans would balk at this. Albeit, many of these tales have fetishistic aspects but the Infanta next takes a scrubbed chamberpot to fill. This would be repulsive to many people, even if they’re fine with a young woman drinking goblets of ejaculate.

I was actually surprised to see “Little Red Riding Hood” because, even with erotic rewriting, it’s almost been done to death. It has similarities to myths of gods changing shape, or magical beings consuming a string of victims. Here, “Red” sets off to Grandmother’s house on the lookout for “handsome young huntsmen.” She has a reputation for twirling about, revealing much beneath her skirts, to the workmen who grab their “bulges.” At least this phrasing makes it clear what they’re doing. When she wanders through the woods she actually hikes up her skirt, given as she is to the thrills of exhibitionism. The story follows the more traditional path when viewed in its sexual context, but with some  amusing twists with Red Riding Hood’s exhibitionistic tendencies, and refreshingly few odd twists of phrase.

“The Traveling Companion” is a popular riddle tale, especially in the Scandinavian countries and reworked by Hans Christian Andersen. Poor Johannes is like his counterpart Michel Michelkleiner and his innocence causes his poverty to increase before he has barely set out on the road. He meets an older, more experienced man who has a magic ointment for curing ills, and that he rubs high up under the skirts of an old lady, and a wooden marionette, which leads to the whole puppet troupe being rubbed and coming alive for a flesh and wood orgy. The two travelers learn of a princess whose suitors must answer three riddles and if they lose, they lose their heads.

Johannes uses the ointment to fluster the princess, and his traveling companion does not rely on the ointment alone but folllows the princess to discover her secret. He enters her bedroom where she is sound asleep with her nightdress having ridden up, “exposing a pair of graceful thighs and the corresponding hills above.” I wasn’t sure at first when he starts spanking her if these were her breasts or buttocks, but presuming buttocks, it would have helped to know she reclined on her stomach instead of trying to be tossed out of the story to figure it out. Other than this one aberration, the story is amusing if somewhat black in humor, and though bawdy, not overly erotic.

“The Turnip” brings us to where we began in Cinderella with the turnip (or parsnip) loving stepsisters who used the vegetative length and firmness for sexual diversion. This poor farmer has magical turnip seeds but his own member grows to gigantic turnip proportions and though he wishes to remove it, the king moves him into residence where the man is used for the king’s riding pleasure. This is another story that disturbingly borders on rape and does not meet erotic content so much as sexual abuse.

Also known as Brier Rose “The Sleeping Beauty” has long had an undercurrent of sexuality or even rape, where the prince kisses or impregnates the sleeping princess. Instead of the witch’s curse, Szereto tosses in a lecherous frog and then the story proceeds apace to the prince many years later breaching the brier thorns. By this point I confess to becoming quite annoyed with the bizarre euphemisms and found I was ejected from the tale when the prince lifts the sleeping princess’s dress where, “A pair of gossamer wings began to slowly unfold….the fragile creature was being held back by two fuzz-covered pods,…” What the–? I could not imagine what this was at first and then believing Szereto to mean the clitoris and labia I was dumbfounded. How is this description, even given to hyperbole, slightly erotic? Fuzzy pods? Gossamer wings? Has anyone ever seen genitalia that looked like this?

“The Twelve Months” is the last tale, with a stepmother and sister who envy the pretty daughter and send her off on tasks designed to kill her. She meets 12 men who are the months and tends to their “branches” in three ways. It is somewhat erotic and one of the better stories.

When I started out reading this collection I really thought I’d love it. I like what I know of Mitzi Szereto and I like the retellings of fairy tales (and many originals as well). Granted, eroticism is different for each person, I still find it hard to believe that many people would find these tales sensual at all; they fall more into the category of bawdy, if anything. The euphemistic phrases don’t work because the description is too bizarre, especially for our modern sensibilities. Why Szereto felt the need to follow this style I’m not sure, except maybe to mimic the style of earlier centuries, but why then the anachronistic aspects dropped in without making the whole tale of another era? It’s as if she was still writing these for children, which is not the projected audience at all. I did like the introductions  about the evolution and history of each story, but I would have liked to have seen a reading list or some lists including The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, etc. as well as scholarly works by Zipes or Bettelheim. I believe that Szereto can write but if I was in Sleeping Beauty’s bed, I was left wanting.

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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed I

This will be a very long and involved review of Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed, a collection of erotic fairy tales published by Cleis Press. In fact it will be at least three, maybe four parts, so hang on to your hats.

When I received The Sweetest Kiss and In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed for review I decided to do the vampire erotica first (Sweetest Kiss) since it was nearer to Hallowe’en. Plus, I love fairy tales. They’re a good memory of my childhood and I still have (managed to find again actually) some of the volumes I had as a kid. (Those influences can be read in previous blog entries on worlds of what-if.) I took one course in university on children’s lit but specifically fairy tales, which gave me a deeper interest in the form. I’ve read numerous tales from Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and the brothers Grimm to updated interpretations by Angela Carter, Sarah Moon and the collections edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I’ve written a few of my own, including poems, and continue to search out and enjoy the varied tales that are there, from the ancient to the new.

Fairy and folktales began a very long time ago. Along with the myths and superstitions that set up the religious structures of culture throughout the world, people were attempting to explain other things or events. And they were entertaining each other. However, not all entertainment had a single purpose. Much was in the way of passing on information: histories, cautionary tales, moral tales, tales of hope and trickery in the little guy/or common person who is rewarded for great deeds/virtue/quick wit, etc. The list is quite extensive.

These tales were told over and over again, passed down through generations and cultures, adapting and evolving with the times. Once Charles Perrault and before him Giambattista Basile, and after, the brothers Grimm, started to set the tales down in writing, gathering them from various sources, the tales began to evolve less and become frozen in time and sentiment of an age. There is evidence that these tales were written down centuries before in various lands, and in different versions but overall I follow the belief that most tales were passed from person to person, tales told by bards and travellers. This is not the view that Mitzi Szereto takes, stating that most tales were gathered from the more noble or richer classes, and there is obvious truth there as written tales would have been for the more educated and therefore wealthy classes. But all these tales started somewhere, being listened to by groups of people. Whichever it may be, there are variations all over.

Just as religions adopted gods from one country to another and similar sun gods, resurrection gods, grain gods and weather gods can be seen in most early religions, so it is that many of these fairy tales are part of the cosmic consciousness that Jung believed in and is quite evident in the evolution and progress of human intellect and thought. Books have been written just on the subject of fairy tales alone, besides the volumes of fairy tales themselves.

The earlier versions are often violent and bloody, and have characters not so redeeming as how they appear in some of Perrault’s and the Grimm brothers’ versions. Indeed, by the time Disney got hold of the fairy tales they were sanitized of any true lessons and every good little princess got her man, as long as she was virtuous, pretty and good, a role model for every submissive female for the 20th century and more.

This brings us to a reclaiming of fairy tales that happened the more adults began to take them seriously again and examine their content. Even though the Grimms edited the tales to suit their views, they were purveyors of folk literature and took their work seriously. Many others have come along to look at the tales and their hidden meanings and mysteries. Some of these scholars of today are A.S. Bayatt, Emma Donohue, and Angela Carter, who did her own rewriting of many a tale. In the Company of Wolves is a great rendition of the Little Red Riding Hood tale and can also be found in a “now” old film of the same name, starring a younger Angela Lansbury. Bruno Bettelheim and Jack Zipes are well-known scholars of fairy tales. Author Sarah Moon did a chilling rendition of the same Little Red Riding Hood as Carter’s but more as a cautionary tale than a coming of age story, with her stark black and white photos of a  young girl in the glare of a car’s headlights and with connotations of a pedophilic stalker, making the tale very modern and terrifying.

Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited collections of modern tales that take these fairy tales with leaps in new directions. Jane Yolen, and other authors have also written different rendtions that are darker and deeper than the original tales. Although it is less storytelling, authors are still taking these archetypal tales and bringing them along through the centuries to match our times, with warnings and morals and fears that hit closer to home.

There are many authors, editors and scholars in the realm of fairy tales who are researching, reading and telling new tales. Having written an erotic fairy tale for a Harlequin anthology that I based off of one of the many (and lesser known) Grimm tales, I was excited to see this collection by Mitzi Szereto.

And here I am, at the end of a blog entry and I have yet to actually talk about the book. I’ll start very briefly and say that it had a preface by Tobsha Learner. Though I didn’t know who this was, Tobsha is an Australian author with several books to her credit in which a blend of magic and eroticism are the theme (and some gorgeous covers on top of that). I thought, great, there will be a scholarly bent to the fairy tale aspect and I’ll learn even more about them. This was coupled by Mitzi Szereto’s introduction and an introduction to each story.

I’ll go into the intro and some of the tales tomorrow, but up to this point, I had not yet read any of Szereto’s writing. From what I could tell of reading about her, she’s vivacious, energetic, intelligent and a good writer. I read a couple of excerpts I found of her other pieces which supported that she knows how to write, so I was looking forward to the tales.

Tomorrow, what I found out as I read.

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