There are many tales of shapeshifting women. Sharon Blackie explores their hidden powers in a collection of retellings by turns cautionary, haunting, and inspirational.
I had never heard of Sharon Blackie, but as long-time lover of fairy tales about shapeshifters the pitch for Foxfire, Wolfskin and other Stories of Shapeshifting Women got me right between the eyes. The gorgeous cover art made it inevitable that I would scramble to read this collection of re-imagined myths and fairytales – and I’m so glad I did.
Women often get the short straw in mythology and fairytale: the evil queen or stepmother, the deceitful witch; at best the daughter, lover or wife who must sacrifice again and again to prove her virtue or (re)gain her loved ones. In Europe’s many tales of shapeshifting women, they are often held against their will or reviled for their fluid natures.
Sharon Blackie has clearly had quite enough of that, thank you (me too).
In response, this collection challenges the traditional female fairy tale experience. While some of the stories do (in keeping with their sources) – feature themes of assault or infidelity, there’s often a fiercer, more satisfying response in these pages than the original tale allows for. Others flip expectation: would it be so terrible to run off with an each-uisge? Can a huldra have no ounce of compassion? Was the Snow Queen misunderstood?
Borrowed from fairy tales across Europe, the stories here are brought together as a seamless whole by Blackie’s gorgeous use of language. She is by turns impish and lyrical, with a gift for evoking the landscapes of the Western Isles and the isolation of remote rural communities. In spite of the changes she makes, many of her retellings feel like full members of the folklore canon they are loaned from in part because they have such a clear sense of place.
The collection also makes room for positive portrayals of older women, if mostly in the role of the goddesses. Three of my favourite stories fell into this category. The Last Man Standing is a haunting tale of a fairy wife looking back on the long, happy years of her marriage, certain that the world is going to the dogs. Somewhere in the middle is the delightfully irreverent Meeting Baba Yaga – the eponymous wise woman luring a disgruntled hippy to her cottage to explore her inner self. This is all the more fun for its sharp edges – our narrator is deeply unlikeable, and it’s unclear what Babs really intends for her… No Country For Old Women closes the book with a heart-rending, life-affirming response in which the Cailleach regains her belief in the future (bring a hanky, I’m sniffling just thinking about it).
It’s not all roses, of course. Is there really so little room for stories about women that don’t focus on pregnancy or marriage? If so, these are shortcomings in our mythologies, not flaws I’ll lay at Sharon Blackie’s door. Could she go further in reinventing its sources? Perhaps. Still – while I might be disgruntled at the baggage our heroines must bear, I could rejoice in the agency they are given here. These women are empowered to rise in response to their trials and take revenge or seize freedom, reshaping themselves and their worlds. There’s even a small space made for female friendships, however unlikely in the original circumstances.
A satisfying collection perfect for reading on an autumnal night.
I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women is out now in the UK.
Check out more reviews for Foxfire, Wolfskin And Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women from other participants in the blog tour: