Z is for Zahler: Classic Retold Fairytales

Zahler writes retold fairy tales. I chose Princess of the Wild Swans because it was one of my favorite fairy tales growing up.

My mother told me the story first. Although I can't remember her version exactly, the basics are always the same: a princess's brothers are changed into swans by an evil enchantress. The princess escapes into the wild where she learns that she can turn her brothers back if she weaves shirts out of nettles--only she must not speak at all during the months of weaving. 

In the Grimm-like ending, a prince finds and weds her. While he is out of town, his (evil) mother decides that the nettle-collecting princess is a witch and tries to burn her alive. The princess continues working on the shirts as she is being hauled to the stake. Her brothers fly over the town, and she throws the shirts over them. Since the last shirt isn't finished, that brother ends up with one wing instead of an arm.  

I was utterly enamored of this tale, which I first heard when I was five or six. When our family journeyed out West and stopped in the Redwood National Park, I was captivated by the "walk-in" trees. That was where the princess lived!

When I got older and started collecting books off Amazon, Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Seventh Swan was one of the first ones I hunted down (I also own Nicholas Stuart Gray's impressive short story collection, A Wind from Nowhere).  

Zahler's coming-of-age story, although a tad slow in parts, is an excellent adventure yarn and actually makes more sense than the original. For one, the princess still mustn't speak, but she can telephathically share her thoughts with her helpers. So the last 2/3rds of the book is not devoid of dialog.

I also never understood how nettles could be made into shirts and assumed that the nettles were sewn together. Zahler makes clear that the nettles go through a process that eventually results in yarn: nettle yarn is a real thing. Consequently, however, this means the princess needs help, which again makes more sense than some starving girl hanging out in the woods by herself. She is helped by one of her brother's sweethearts, that woman's brother, their witch mother, some of the guards, and the townspeople.

The evil enchantress-stepmother poses a problem, and the final chapters are quite exciting!

In the wrap-up, Zahler thankfully retains the prince with one wing: it's a great pay-off for a story. So often, fairy tales end rather like Star Trek episodes: How did the ship get fixed so fast? But the swan story leaves a hint that a problem can resolve but not always exactly as expected.

This completes the third A-Z list. Coming next . . . non-fiction!

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