We all know the Cheshire Cat—that slowly vanishing grimalkin Alice encounters in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the 1865 fairy tale crafted by Lewis Carroll. In fact, the disappearing feline tells Alice, when she asks the Cat for directions, that she could visit the Hatter or the March Hare, who live in opposite directions. “Visit either you like: they’re both mad,” purrs the Cheshire Cat. When Alice complains that she doesn’t want “to go among mad people,” the Cat responds: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Grimalkin, you’ll want to know, is archaic for cat.
Like Alice and the dematerializing grimalkin, we’re all a bit bonkers. Why else would you be considering reading the following anthology of original fairy tales? We Are All Mad Here: An Anthology of Original Fairy Tales is a collection of fairy tales created by students at St. Norbert College for the Classic and Contemporary Fairy Tales course, one that appears every four years or so and then vanishes from the curriculum, only to reappear again. Unlike our friend Chessie, though, the class doesn’t vanish very slowly: it leaves a bit of residue behind, the thing that you are holding in your hands this very second . . . or gazing at on your computer screen.
To spend a whole semester on fairy tales may qualify one as being clinically defined as mad. Think about it. Throughout the semester we talked about wolves tempting young girls, parents abandoning their children in dark woods, spindles pricking princesses, dwarves protecting orphaned children, or young girls tumbling down rabbit-holes or being whisked away by cyclones to magical worlds. Yes, indeed, we’re all mad here.
If you are an astute reader, you might have noticed that the above paragraph talked about fairy tales in the plural, though you could recognize specific tales— “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White,” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. That’s because fairy tales are always in a state of transition, of revision, of contamination. Why do fairy tales have such a grip on us? Why do we feel the need to revisit, revive, and revise these age-old tales? Why do we continue to embrace the seemingly insanity that defines the fairy tale? For one, fairy tales are pure entertainment that can be experienced by the young or old, a way to suspend our disbelief in a workaday world that often feels more demented than the tales we escape to. A more important reason might be that fairy tales provide us with “equipment for living,” a term coined by Kenneth Burke to describe the power of all literature: reading fantastical stories gives us ideas on how best to live our lives. We identify with, for some essential reason, the basic myths of fairy tales—and we continually revise them to provide such equipment for living in a fast-based technological world.
We Are All Mad Here offers 18 original fairy tales that run the gamut from serious to satiric. Fairy tales have the reputation of beginning “once upon a time” and ending “happily ever after,” but the truth of the matter is that there is no one way to tell or retell a fairy tale. When asked how she wrote a fairy tale, Angela Carter responded simply, “Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? . . . This is how I make potato soup.” Carter is evoking J. R. R. Tolkien, who in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” remarks that these tales are found in “the Pot of soup, the Cauldron of Story, [which] has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty . . . .” Now we can better understand the carnivorous appetites of giants, ogres, and wicked stepmothers in fairy tales.
In other words, our appetite for fairy tales is never satiated. When Alice meets the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle regales her with his version of a kind of fairy tale, a version of Carter-Tolkien soup:
Beautiful Soup, so rich and green, Waiting in a hot tureen! Who for such dainties would not stoop: Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup! Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup! Beau—ootiful Soo—oop! Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!
If soup is not your cup of tea, then maybe the best way to describe the variety of what we call a fairy tale is to heed the description of the Dormouse, who Alice encounters in “A Mad Tea-Party.” The Dormouse focuses on tales that begin “with an M, such as mouse-traps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness—you know you say things are ‘much of a muchness’—did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness!”
Very soon your hunger will overpower you. Feel free to enter—but at your own risk—the often wacky world of We Are All Mad Here, where soup’s on. Take your fill of the much of the muchness of the fairy tale. Enjoy!
- John Pennington
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