John Gardner’s Dragon, Dragon and Other Tales promotes four fairy tales in total, but only two of them have any vague references to well known stories like The Brave Little Tailor. Gardner’s title story, Dragon, Dragon, is more or less a mockery of “knights in armor” and the customary approach to vanquishing a mythical creature like a dragon. Many traditional fairy tales feature hungry dragons being killed by some bold prince or knight, with the protagonist being sufficiently rewarded in the end. However, the hero of Dragon, Dragon is neither; he is a “commoner” who merely heeds his father’s strange advice, a nonsensical rhyme, in order to acquire his heart’s desire after his older brothers have failed to save the kingdom. The proverb “Laughter is the best medicine” is the moral that becomes prominent during the story’s outcome.
The next tale does not emphasize that bravery and cunning are not enough to defeat a great evil. In fact, The Tailor and the Giant portrays fear, its side effects, and its unlikely rewards. The Brave Little Tailor comes to mind when assessing this modern fairy tale, whose protagonist is also a little tailor. He is a fearful man who refuses to even leave his house, but after seeing the consequences of his actions, or his lack of action, the tailor’s guilty conscience presses him to take responsibility for his own life. Just as The Tailor and the Giant shows how heroism can be gained by doing nothing, The Miller’s Mule gathers a fierce blow against the inexplicable cruelty many fairy tales showcase in a narrative about the battle of wits and trust between a “kindly” miller and his “wicked” mule. The mule’s hateful threefold lie lands his former master in trouble with the king, but (as the author says himself) who really knows who gets his rightful due in the end? Gardner rightly points out that it is not always so easy to tell who the villain in a fairy tale is when it all depends on perspective.
Doubt is one of the themes in The Last Piece of Light, the last fairy tale in Dragon, Dragon and Other Tales. This final story has no princess for a heroine but a chimney-sweep, a young girl who falls in love with a prince during a worldwide “blackout.” In all of his fairy tales, Gardner cleverly explores fairy tale stereotypes and questions the most unrealistic occurrences ever allowed in such a short story, e.g. fairy tales usually punish the antagonists in the end, but reality begs to differ.
More “chess games” appear in John Gardner’s second fairy tale collection, entitled Gudgekin the Thistle Girl and Other Tales. Each of the four tales is original, the author moving his characters across the board of his storylines while using conventional and unconventional strategies to reach their endings. The title tale is a reflection of Cinderella, and its excellence earned it a place in the fairy tale anthology The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight. Moreover, Gudgekin the Thistle Girl is not enigmatic or nonsensical like Gardner’s other three fairy tales.
The most confusing of them all is The Griffin and the Wise Philosopher, which has absolutely no moral. It tells of the voluntary exile of a griffin from modern society, caused in part by an old philosopher whose only exemplary trait is his mental state, complete bewilderment in life, in comparison to the rest of the kingdom’s momentary confusion whenever the griffin appears. The Shape-Shifters of Shorm is unaccountably violent and shifty, capturing that eerie theme of “no good deed goes unpunished.” Harmless shape-shifters are hunted down and killed for the “safety” of the kingdom, an unusual look at injustice and persecution of the innocent. The Sea Gulls, on the other hand, is less perplexing in the fairy tale sense, centering on a foolish king who gambles away his own life and the lives of his family, only to have the saying “what goes around comes around” come true. At least his daughter experiences the only positive side of her father’s deal by eventually finding her true love.