Tor’s Fairy Tale series, edited by Terri Windling, has published a number of elegant literary fantasies since its inception in 1987. Each novel in the series aims to retell a classic fairytale in a new and startling way, restoring elements of sensuality and terror which have been bowdlerised by well-meaning children’s editors over the years. Authors to date have included Pamela Dean, Charles de Lint and Jane Yolen: the latest in the series, White as Snow, is Tanith Lee’s interpretation of the tale of Snow White.
It’s far from the first time that Tanith Lee has used fairy tales as a source. Her 1982 anthology, Red as Blood, retold a number of classic tales in styles ranging from the high-tech science fiction romance of ‘Beauty’ (Beauty and the Beast) to the more familiar surreal horror of the title story - another version of Snow White.
In recent years, Tanith Lee’s adult fiction has seemed ever darker and more decadent: her prose can, at worst, be overblown and humourless. Only her juvenile novels (such as the Wolf Tower and Unicorn sequences) retain the wit and vigour of earlier works.
White as Snow is, in that sense at least, a refreshing departure from form. Lee intertwines the tales of the evil ‘stepmother’ and her affection-starved daughter with elements of classical myth and medieval romance. Arpazia is a spoil of war, raped and impregnated by the conquering king: her disowned daughter Candacis, known as Coira, is no sweet cipher, but a complex personality in her own right. The dwarves, too, are finely-drawn individuals with unexpected depth, rather than the circus troop one might initially take them for.
The tale unfolds against a lightly-drawn backdrop reminiscent of medieval Italy. There’s a dreamlike lack of any sense of place and time. Nothing from the wider world crosses the boundaries of the narrative, although there are vague references to other lands, other wars. Christ and his mother Marusa are worshipped, but the women of the walled town go into the woods at solstice and equinox to pay homage to the forest king, remembering the old myths. Coira’s nickname is given to her by her nurse: it’s the name of the corn-goddess Demetra’s daughter, who was stolen away to a place under the earth by Hadz, the King of Death.
As if acting out a play, the characters in the novel perform various interpretations of the roles suggested by their names, at once blind to the myths and archetypes they embody and desperate to escape them. Unravelling the original texts of the fairy tale, as well as the Disneyfied popular conception, White as Snow marks a return to the clarity and vision of Tanith Lee’s finest fantasies.