Rape, Incest and Magic in a Grimms Fairy-Tale

“Leave me alive, children,
Snowy-white, Rosy-red,
Will you beat your lover dead?”

                       -‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’, Household Tales, The Harvard Classics,  1909–14, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.   

Margo Lanagan’s retelling of the classic Grimm’s tale ‘Snow-White and Rose-Red’ depicts a detailed history to the story, set somewhere in Europe (although never really pinpointed, and this surely is a deliberate move). Central character young Liga, after suffering a series of horrific abuse and violence, escapes the very fabric of reality itself with her two infant daughters, thus weaving a luxurious tapestry of fairytale world intertwined with the real. It is here that the idea of “heart’s desire” is given life, where Liga and her two daughters are able to grow undisturbed. The characters of ‘Snow-white’ and ‘Rose-red’ (known in the novel as Branza and Urrda) begin to question their reality as they develop and grown older, eventually become drawn to the hidden outside world with all its “beauty and brutality”. The novel follows the original tale very faithfully, albeit embroidering and expanding the characters’ lives, adding further details and explaining events which occur in a more convincing way. Tender Morsels becomes, then, a much darker story than the average fairytale, choosing to show the disturbing features of humans as well as the more beautiful. From the very prologue of the novel, which depicts the idea of dreams coming true and having various desires, Lanagan hints at what is to come, creating a theme which does not shy away from downfalls and dangers of being a human.

However, a warning must be given to readers that although the novel is not explicit, it opens with perversity and violence, setting a dark tone for the novel. The reader may be shielded from the graphical side of the breaking of innocence and identity, but this does not actually masking the truth of what is happening. Both the narrator and Liga carefully hide the vulgarity of the abuse she endures, preferring to cloak it with more innocent descriptions. However while the graphic scenes are missed out, the readers are left to form their own idea of what has happened, guided by the hints given. We see the reality behind Liga and her relationship with her father, so that while her innocence and naivety loosely covers the brutality of the reality of abuse she suffers, it does not attempt to hide or undermine her situation, adding a touch of modesty to Liga’s character. The theme of  ‘learning’ rules also embarks from here, with Liga feeling that her identity is shaped by everyday ‘rules’ and by certain ways to view the world. With her father inducing miscarriages for her unwanted pregnancies, we see how Liga’s perspective of herself begins to change, as events begin to quietly take a psychological toll on her. Becoming aware that she will have to make a new identity, as well as how she will be perceived by the outside world as a daughter and as a human, Liga winds herself in so tightly that when she loses her father, she becomes lost, feeling that without her father to corner and oppress her, her identity and self seeming to be “flying apart”.

Throughout the novel, even in the most powerfully emotional scenes, the author successfully harnesses a wonderfully poetic and beautiful style of language, bringing scenes alive with the imagery created. The imaginative, creative use of language is pivotal in adding feeling to the novel, from the “sidling thin black witch” used to signify physical pain, to the pure joy in watching her daughter’s wavering hands, opening and closing like “flowers on unsteady stalks”, and Lanagan captures her own beautiful dialect to speak when the characters do not. This metaphorical, descriptive language creates a whole new element to scenes, serving to strengthen emotional scenes.

Also interwoven into the fundamental functioning of the novel is the concept of magic, which are rendered in various forms such as the red and white jewels given to Liga, the ‘moonbabby’, and the alternative reality that has been created itself. It could be suggested that this can be interpreted as a metaphor for the process of disassociation, which certainly abounds in the novel as a coping mechanism for Liga. While the outside world continues about its normal business, Liga and her daughters remain in an introverted life, which allows them to follow their own rules and conventions.

The two sisters Branza and Urrda – silently recognised as ‘Snow-White’ and ‘Rose-Red’ – symbolise not only the two sides to being human, showing how there can be ‘darkness’ as well as ‘lightness’, but also the very intellect of the mind. Where the fairer, sweeter Branza delights in the innocent joys of nature, gentleness and has no desire to seek a greater world, the darker-skinned Urrda constantly pushes her boundaries, showing a great passion and determination to find out the real world and display her overt curiosity.

Similarly, the theme of ignorance and knowledge play against each other throughout the novel, showing how one is not able to exist without the other. The irony in Urrda’s realisation that she has been kept in ignorance actually serves to show her sharp intelligence. The fact that she is able to perceive this shows that she is the ‘darker’ sister in more than one way, showing that no matter how unpleasant, at least “Here [in the real world]  we have truth”, rather than ignorance and comfort.

The representation of men in the novels appears largely as being intrusive and destructive. From Liga’s father at the beginning, to the profanity spewing from the physically challenged “littlee” man, it is a significant detail that shows how men are excluded from the world that Liga has created. The only way any men are able to enter are by stumbling into the world, and on the condition that they are unable to threaten the women. Thus the men from the outside world are transformed into real bears, who, while equally still very masculine and risky, are less threatening because they are literal manifestation of Nature. Similarly, the “littlee” does not pose a real threat, therefore is able to enter the enchanted world showing how men have to have their ‘maleness’ has to be altered or stunted in order for them to be admitted. However, even this begins to show its crack, as shown in the adolescent Branza, who appears to epitomise the concept of femininity and propriety. Her vexed, charged relationship with Tessel, the aggressive bear-man from the outside world reveals her emerging sexuality, showing that this can also be a natural thing, rather than a thing of violence and horror as suffered by Liga. Similarly, it is not always the men who are able to make a strong impression, as characters such as the white witch Miss Dance who stands and appears strong “like a man”, show how it takes courage to live in a world where there is cruelty and prejudice.

Liga’s world shows that even in a magical world there is a two-dimensional feel to it that even she can sense, showing how she cannot hide in a false reality forever. The idea of the real versus the mental state is constantly explored, showing how Liga seems to slip in and out of the ‘rules’ of the everyday world and although uses her hidden world as a way to heal, she also perhaps uses it as a way to avoid confronting her past and her fears. The alternative realities could be interpreted as a sci-fi feature,  which is shown by the scientific explanation given to rationalise the ‘magic’,  and grounds itself in logic (even if it does at times feel a bit confusing!)

The idea of society and it’s rules – as Urrda finds it when she is searching for ‘truth’ – shows how it is inevitable that the ‘real’ world will emerge. Although the rules of society  seem cruel and oppressive, showing a need to conform and be shape, which is what Liga ran away from, it is also a medium to become a stronger person. By hiding the daughters away, Liga appears to have given her daughters “no kind of existence”, as they need to interact with others and experience cruelty as well as encounter the range of human emotions, develop deep relationships, and discover who they truly are.

Tender Morsels truly explores what it means to be human, as well as the idea of “heart’s desires”, showing how powerful emotions and human characteristics can shape identity and can be used to inflict both pain and joy. At its heart, it is a perceptive representation on the after-effects of overwhelming events, showing how the human mind can explicably emerge from the ashes and grow forward. This is a truly beautifully written book, despite some of the unpleasant and even at times, heartbreaking circumstances, which makes the narrative all the more poignant. As another book review summed up:

“Tender Morsels deals with rape, but it’s never actually explicit. What it does is suggest what happens, and your mind does the rest. But nothing is actually masked. Especially not the impact, physical and psychological, that this kind of violence has on Liga. I love that Margo Lanagan doesn’t ever make us pity Liga. She makes our heart break for her, yes, and she makes us love her, and respect her, and wish her the very best.”

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (Vintage Books: London 2010) pp. 486 £7.99

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One thought on “Rape, Incest and Magic in a Grimms Fairy-Tale

  1. Pingback: 50 Australian Books To Read Before You Die – IMA

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