We read these updated versions of classic fairy-tales at bedtime, then – instead of sleeping – the battle commenced...
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox (1835) but set during The Thirty Years’ War, Sally Gardner’s latest novel could not be further from a flowery children’s fairy-tale. However, it cunningly utilises the format to offer an unflinchingly honest look at love, loss and the brutality of war.
The opening chapter depicts scenes of shocking violence, but while Andersen’s protagonist eventually gets his happy ending, you get the feeling Gardner’s might not be so fortunate.
The story follows Otto Hundebiss, a destitute soldier who has lost everything in the war. In his final battle he has a vision of Death extending a hand to him, which Otto refuses. When he is propelled back into the aftermath of the battle scene he is left musing, “Maybe I should have gone with Death when he offered me his bony finger.” He is rescued by a mysterious stranger who gives him a pair of boots and a set of dice, which he claims will show Otto the right path. But when Otto inevitably deviates from this path in pursuit of wealth and power, he finds himself once again at Death’s door.
The tale is dark, harrowing and beautifully told, but offers little by way of consolation to the bleakness of war. During Gardner’s research she spoke to soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as looking at the plight of child soldiers in Rwanda. Her tying together of contemporary as well as historic conflicts brings home the very real horrors of war; this was particularly poignant for me as I read the book just before Remembrance Day.
Still, there are some redeeming moments of happiness. Otto’s relationship with Safire, a lone girl he encounters, is genuine and touching, and the final passages of the book are exquisite. While Stephen Jones’ collection, Fearie Tales, was deliciously dark and gruesome, it didn’t resonate with me as much as Tinder. Gardner’s narrative is fast-paced and gripping, but most of all it manages to mix in witches, wolves and black magic – all while being thought-provoking. And that’s quite a feat.
StylistFearie Tales: Stories Of The Grimm And Gruesome
Happy ending enthusiasts, look away now. Fans of cannibalism, death and twisted retribution, this one’s for you.
A compendium of fairy-tales this may be but, in keeping with the genre’s roots, its target audience is by no means U-rated.
In the early-19th century, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm set about collecting and transcribing the European folk tales that had been passed down the generations by word of mouth. Eventually the stories came to be viewed as morality tales for children.
Now, 200 years later, Stephen Jones has tasked writers including Joanne Harris (Chocolat) and Neil Gaiman (Coraline) with revisiting and reworking a selection of the Grimms’ traditional tales before they became the sanitised versions that we know today.
Make no mistake: this is a horror anthology. At a mere half a page, the first story in the collection – The Wilful Child – sets the tone for the rest of the book. The child in question, we are told, did not do as her mother wished. “For this reason God had no pleasure in her and let her become ill… In a short time she lay on her death bed.”
There’s not much let up, from the young boy cannibalised at sea by his shipmates in Gaiman’s haunting Down To A Sunless Sea to the sisters in Cinderella who are forced to mutilate their feet at their mother’s behest in order to squeeze into their step-sister’s petite slipper, and ultimately get their eyes plucked out by birds as Cinderella ties the knot.
Tinder is a stunning follow-up to Gardner’s 2012 Carnegie Medal winner, Maggot Moon; it’s by turns horrific and hopeful. With superb illustrations by David Roberts throughout, it is a pleasure to look at and hold, as well as read, and a testament to the fact there will always be a place for the printed word.
However, for me, Fearie Tales has the edge here, mainly because it proved so refreshing and and authentic, reflecting the true intention of the original storytellers, after decades of sugarcoated Disney fare.
VERDICT: Tinder is setting us on fire
While it may at first glance look like a children’s book it is anything but, and the manipulation of the familiar fairy-tale tropes had us captivated from start to finish.