Review: “Princess Hynchatti and Some Other Surprises” by Tanith Lee

For the love of books

Princess Hynchatti and Some Other Surprises by Tanith Lee is yet another volume of modern fairy tales that is rarely discovered on bookshelves.  Although published during the 1970s, it is quite shameful that these twelve tales about princesses and princes have been ignored for so long, especially when such humorous narratives always bring up the important question of what makes a story a fairy tale.  Naturally, the author does not cling to any standards and merely retell a few well-known classics within her own creations; the most noticeable element in Lee’s tales is not only fantasy but also surprise, for nothing happens in the storyline as the reader would expect it to.

First there is Princess Dahli, a remarkable version of Cinderella that retains the images of poverty versus wealth but extracts the usual theme of “what goes around comes around” by focusing on a poor princess instead (this story was also promoted further by being included in the anthology The Outspoken Princess and The Gentle Knight).  In the same manner, Princess Gesnyl is all about an extremely shy princess, an ill-tempered Prince Charming, and an audacious cat named Clever who teaches the main characters how to communicate in this Cinderella-like tale.  The penultimate tale among the equally divided stories between female and male protagonists that has remote references to archetypal fairy tales is Princess Sansu, where the title character is subjected to her parents’ whimsical request—to have Sansu’s hair grow as long as her siblings’.

Rooted in RapunzelPrincess Sansu has a malicious witch, only she is called Night Mary and is personally responsible for Sansu’s hair growth due to the superficiality and foolishness of Sansu’s relatives, not because she kidnapped Sansu at birth as part of some bargain.  Moreover, Sansu saves herself without the help of any prince, another obvious pointer from the author about her feministic ideas when it comes to female roles in folklore.  Prince Chirrad is more comical, warning readers not to ever rely on assumptions based on recurring scenarios that are similar to those either in fairy tales or real life.  For example, Prince Chirrad introduces a lot of trouble into his life by comparing his circumstances with those in stories like Swan Maiden, but he manages to fix his mistakes with the help of a truly enchanted admirer.

Leaving familiar ground behind, Lee transcends the boundaries of fairy tales and presents the impossible and the totally unexpected.Princess Hynchatti, the title story of the collection, draws a little from Greek mythology concerning the abduction of Persephone, although Hynchatti is a rather inept and silly princess who finds a lonely prince with the personality of the Greek god Hades.  Prince Amilec and Princess Nathit feature princesses who assign the most difficult (and ridiculous) tasks to their suitors, mainly in order to get rid of them.  However, while this situation is common in many fairy tales, Prince Amilec has a wonderful twist at the end that affects the bad-tempered princess and lovesick Amilec, a wonderful use of dramatic irony and the fact that one should never fall in love with a picture.  Princess Nathit, on the other hand, learns to love her potential suitor for two reasons: he is smart enough not to disregard animal help and he does not actually want to marry Nathit at all.

In Prince Friedal, the lead character has strong botanical inclinations, but he undergoes a series of The Frog Prince-like events, like being turned into a dragon, thanks to his witchy Aunt Anna Thema (one will notice the caustic humor behind her name).  Two stories without any romance whatsoever are Prince Brendran and Prince Ulan, the former concerning the journeys of a prince whose deserted kingdom needs to be saved from a long-lasting drought and the latter about two royal siblings and their cantankerous owl who are visited by a reclusive, castle-seeking wizard.

Finally, the fairy tale notion that quests lead to glory and “happily-ever-after” appears in Princess Cleofern and Prince Chesorith, the last two stories in Princess Hynchatti and Some Other Surprises.  Cleofern goes in a circle to find that her dream spouse has been waiting for her at home all along, while Chesorith realizes the unusual gift bestowed on him by his poor fairy godmother—the gift of opposites, when everything Chesorith expects to happen turns out the exact opposite.

In all twelve of her stories, Lee expresses many themes, e.g. how true heroes should be self-reliant but open to outside help, honest and only polite to a reasonable extent, and above all, sensible.  Overall, Princess Hynchatti and Some Other Surprises is a unique compilation of wisdom and a fantastical reflection of reality that is unafraid to show the complexity and simplicity of human relationships in a new, modernized spotlight.

Original review: Part 6: Modern fairy tales by forgotten authors; Part 7: Modern fairy tales by forgotten authorsPart 8: Modern fairy tales by forgotten authors, Examiner.com

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