- Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men of Fairy Tales
You know these brothers. You've met them before, when they were boys. They were the ones who were quiet, who were different from everybody else in their family, and who liked to read—and read fairy tales, at that. Now they've written why, and their essays are well worth reading. Here are poems, short stories, literary nonfiction, and a biology essay that often swerve from one genre to another in the hands of writers such as Alexander Chee, Robert Coover, Neal Gaiman, Ilya Kaminsky, Michael Martone, and Richard Siken.
What's not here? You won't find explorations of masculinity in the vein of gender and cultural studies. Nor will you find directly stated masculine points of view on the Grimms' tales. However, Brothers and Beasts shows poets and writers living with and drawing creative heat from fairy tales, and, in doing so, it offers much to gender studies, folklore studies, and creative writing.
Don't miss the introduction by Kate Bernheimer—editor of this book as well as the annual journal Fairy Tale Review—because what she says about the long slog needed to get these writers to finish their essays provides insight into men's attitudes toward the tales. Some of the men she approached told her they had nothing to say. Others were surprised she asked them, because they thought they had hidden their use of fairy tales. Many wrote "anguished" notes: they just couldn't finish the essay; it was "simply too personal an endeavor" (7). We can be thankful they persevered, for as they wrote of their attraction to fairy tales, the authors opened the doors to their most curtained rooms.
Several issues reoccur. Many of the authors bear witness to the absolute necessity of traditional stories. They tell how tales offered them lifelines out of [End Page 413] their early, constricted lives and set them exploring what it is to be different, to be "monstrous" in the eyes of others. "The Boy who set forth to learn what fear was" offered "comfort and nourishment" to Christopher Barzak after he finally admitted to himself that this tale of a father and a supposedly stupid, youngest son was his personal story. Now, Barzak says, he reads on "fearlessly, so that I can discover how they become who they are meant to become, which is what we all are meant to do in our brief lives in this world, whether anyone else understands the way we're walking or not" (33). And Greg Bills, writing of both "Jack and the Giant" and the childhood game he played of hiding in a pillow case and pretending a giant comes to take him away, affirms, "Fairy tales . . . offered an unregulated sanctuary not only for creatures that could not exist in actuality . . . but for emotions that had no conceivable outlet into reality. I could not be a gay boy in a world [among Utah Mormons] where gay boys did not exist, but, then, hobbits, centaurs, and giants had no claim to actuality either yet somehow managed to survive—on the page and in my head if nowhere else" (45).
Several authors explore the intersection of fairy tales with their life stories by writing not memoir but a complex interweaving of the tales, as stage storytellers such as Donald Davis and Jo Radner do. Ilya Kaminsky blends fairy tale with his family's stories as he dramatizes hunger and plenty in "The Little Pot," which begins, "There was something strange about that illegal soup factory on Sovetskaya Militsiya Street, everybody said so, but nobody knew for sure" (85).
In a second major current running through the book, authors reveal how fairy tales helped them become writers. As Neil Gaiman explains, fairy tales are so much a part of him that writing about them would be like "trying to explain what I think of my spine or my circulatory...