Series: The Archetypal Looking Glass
Spoilers: Spoilers for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente. Major spoilers at the end of the review have a warning and several line breaks before them.
Image Description: Cover of “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making. A red cover with an oval image of a little girl and a wyvern with it’s wings chained. The little girl is holding an over-sized key.
Lack of agency is a common complaint when it comes to fairy tales: images of princesses in towers and damsels in distress pervade the public consciousness. Fairy tales as most people seem to view them, at least in America, are very strongly influenced by Disney. Perhaps the most obvious of offenders when it comes to agency is Sleeping Beauty—and, partly due to her place in Disney canon, her story is one of the most famous. As princesses imprisoned in towers go, the sleeping princess is far less active in her own tale than, for instance, Rapunzel, who must let down her hair and be complicit in her own escape. Snow White presents a very similar issue to Sleeping Beauty, and as the first of the Disney princesses, her story set a great many precedents. In fact, Sleeping Beauty merely repeats Snow White’s story, being rescued first by three fairies instead of seven dwarves, then lying asleep in a tower, while Snow White lay dead in a glass coffin—and finally being rescued by the kiss of her “true love.” Cinderella seems to fare a little better, but in many versions every major plot point in her story is facilitated by someone else—her stepmother, her fairy godmother, and finally the prince, who saves her from having to reveal herself by seeking her out. In some versions of the story, including Into the Woods (which was recently adapted by Disney), the prince even spreads pitch on the stairs in an attempt to trap Cinderella—something I will discuss more in a later post.
Lack of agency is not a problem, however, in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (which I will be referring to henceforth as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, because it is much shorter). I cannot imagine this is accidental. This story is most definitely a fairy tale, and like most fairy tales it is heavily influenced by What Has Come Before. As the Green Wind says, “No one is chosen. Not ever. Not in the real world…You are not the chosen one, September. Fairyland did not choose you—you chose yourself” (pg 205). September chooses to go on adventures, to help people, to come to Fairyland in the first place. This is agency.
It is not only that the hero of this story is a girl, and it is not only that it is her story, assembled by her choices, that makes this such a good example of agency. Agency and freedom of choice are a huge part of this story for many characters, not just September. Many of the people September meets on her journey have been robbed of their freedom in some way—but within the story, not as a part of its telling. September meets people who have had their lives changed and freedom infringed upon by the Marquess, and who have made choices of what to do in their new situations. There is a boy named Saturday, who is a Marid (which is much like a djinn or genie) and his story begins to explore the issues of freedom that go with any djinn-like arrangement, as well as the issues of destiny. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland only begins to touch on these and how they fit in with free will, but it is only the first book of a series. While I haven’t read the other books yet, I am hopeful they will delve further into these issues.
The rest of the review involves some major spoilers for the end of the book, so if you don’t want spoilers, turn back now.
There are no princes or princesses in this story, in need of rescuing or not—instead there is a queen and a Marquess. Like September, the Marquess knows how stories work—perhaps better than September, for she has a great deal more experience. It is her choices that drive her story, as September’s choices drive her own. Even her entrance to fairyland is, in a way, the result of her actions—although not as fairly as with September. She climbs into the closet, though, and keeps walking until she reaches Fairyland—and of course, when she returns she has been actively trying to find Fairyland for some time. It is also her golem, her own creation, that finally brings her back. When the Marquess is pulled from Fairyland, Valente addresses lack of choice: the Marquess is pulled from the life she built and the choices she made not just against her will, but without even consulting her. It is the pain from this which turns her into a tyrant, taking away others’ freedom as it was taken from her.
There is one final choice the Marquess makes, a choice which brings us back to my introduction: The Marquess chooses to go to sleep. Sleeping Beauty is cursed, then saved, then sleeps and is saved again, and there is nothing at all that she can do about it. The Marquess, however, sends herself to sleep. She is the agent of her own defeat—or of her own preservation, in her eyes. In any case, whether it is for good or ill, sleeping is her choice, and no one else’s.