Magic for a modern age

11th April 2003 at 01:00
Beauty. By Robin McKinley. David Fickling Books. pound;10.99

Poison. By Chris Wooding. Scholastic Press. pound;12.99

The Folk Keeper. By Franny Billingsley. Bloomsbury Children's Books. pound;5.99

Tithe: a modern faerie tale. By Holly Black. Simon amp; Schuster. pound;7.99

Victoria Neumark is carried away with the fairies in latter-day tales of enchantment

In these days of gutter-realism teen fiction and horror-fantasy sword sagas, what is the place for the traditional fairytale?

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim tried to unearth reasons for the power and longevity of fairytales. Rather as Freud had for myth, Bettelheim concluded that fairytales persisted because they served a twin purpose: they dealt with unresolved primal conflicts and they pointed out lessons for adult life.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast, for instance, touched on the irrepressible potency of sexuality and its taming into conjugality; on a more practical level, it offered sage advice on such knotty points as keeping promises, looking after family interests and treating even the most startling acquaintances with respect and good manners.

Not everyone agreed with Bettelheim, then or now. Magical beings who are capricious yet attractive, like but unlike humanity, are appealing to authors and readers, perhaps, because they allow us to explore hived-off human attributes; because they bring in new plot possibilities, defying laws of probability; or simply because they are great characters.

Such possibilities are delightfully explored in a new crop of fairytales for today, while the best of them also resonate with the beat of deeper meanings.

Robin McKinley's Beauty is a classic reworking of a classic. Beauty is not so much a beauty, more a girl with what used to be called "an interesting face"; Beast is hairy with claws, but rather nice really; the sisters have a comfortingly ordinary sisterly relationship. So far, so modern. But there is still the enchanted wood and castle, the magical bounty, the self-serving plates and dishes, the animals that talk, all manner of sparkly jewels and fast-growing roses.

And, of course, the matter of the Beast, whom only love will transform into a man. Still, McKinley wraps it all up together alluringly for girls aged eight to 13. (It is impossible to imagine a boy enjoying this book. For one thing, the Beast is such a sap.) Poison is another gutsy girl who acts selflessly and finds adventures, in true fairytale style. In a reversed universe where the Phaerie (spelt thus) have driven humans to the edge of existence, she leaves her home in the marshlands to find her baby sister, abducted by the Phaerie into another world where warlords are fighting over the succession to the post of Hierophant, who writes the stories others have to live.

It's a thrilling tale for nine to 15-year-olds with a fast-paced plot, great characters, including the Lady of the Spiders (a woman pregnant by a spider) and the Bone Witch's nice-but-dim adopted daughter, and a satisfy- ingly bitter-sweet ending.

Where Poison's journey to adulthood points towards a job (I suppose being a Hierophant is a job) in a differently reversed universe, Corinna Stonewall's task of keeping the Folk is more like a psychological test. The Folk dwell underground and come out on special occasions to make mischief.

They have to be propitiated by gifts of animal-derived food and kept in line by a poetry-spouting Folk Keeper.

Corinna Stonewall has worked her way up from foundling to Folk Keeper by lying and luck. Relocated at the age of 15, she struggles with a new lot of recalcitrant Folk (a kind of psychic equivalent of Year 11 on a wet Friday), is forced to confront family history and finds romance. But Corinna has magical powers, thank goodness, if she can only trust herself.

Franny Billingsley's novel is a minor masterpiece of compression: sharply written and highly engaging for 10 to 16-year-olds.

Tithe relates more closely to our world. Here too the fairies are merciless incarnations of desires. Whereas in The Folk Keeper they are merely greedy, in Tithe they resemble the "fays" of ballads, keen to steal babies, seduce handsome men and luscious ladies, steal jewels and torture hapless weaker beings.

Kaye's mother is an aspiring rock singer; Kaye, at 16, has to make her own way most of the time. Then she finds out that she is really a fairy too, and that all around her a fairy drama is enacted in which she is a key player.

From an adult point of view, the fairy world of Tithe sounds hellish: there's a lot of getting dressed up (wings, green skin, the whole bit) and dancing all night, with nasty accidents. To a teenager, it's an interesting scene. With a moral: stick by your friends. Whatever their species.

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