We’re all familiar with the typical fairy-tale narrative. Think Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty — helpless and passive in wait of a prince to save them. This is not to discredit princesses like Pocahontas or Mulan, who fight for what they believe in and challenge the status quo. It’s just that the Cinderella narrative has somehow had an enduring influence on our cultural imagination, despite its outdated themes and characters.
Disney’s remake, CINDERELLA (2015), directed by Kenneth Branagh, tried to update the fairy tale with unsatisfactory results. Cinderella is still rewarded for her suffering by marrying the prince. Can’t we update the story a little more?
Enter Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the 500 Kingdoms novels. These novels are half fantasy, half romance, all perfect. They flip the fairy-tale narrative on its head, taking familiar tales and inverting them in fascinating and delightful ways. The first novel in the series (and the best, in my opinion) is The Fairy Godmother. It’s based on Cinderella — but this isn’t the story you know.
The Fairy Godmother
The Fairy Godmother tells the story of Elena Klovis, an orphan who lives in the kingdom of Otraria. Otraria is a happy land. The king and queen are beloved by the people, the land is safe and prosperous. Even the weather seems inclined to fit into a narrative of peace and plenitude. Elena, however, is not living the life of a typical Otrarian. Living with her stepmother and two stepsisters, Elena is abused and overworked. Her place in the family is reduced to an unpaid servant. She works from dawn until midnight or later, and only eats bare scraps. She lives in rags and sleeps on a pallet on the floor. Sound familiar?
Although Elena falls into the Ella Cinders narrative, her story does not reach its natural conclusion. Her prince is only 11 years old to her 21. When Elena eventually meets her fairy godmother, it is not on the way to a ball, but rather at a servants’ hiring fair. Her fairy godmother, Bella, begins to explain the way that things work in the Five Hundred Kingdoms:
“You see, whenever there is a person whose life begins to resemble a tale … something begins to happen, and that something is magic… That magic begins to try to force their lives down the path that their circumstances most closely resemble… That magic has been trying very hard to propel you down the path of a tale to a happily ever after, and you’ve been well overdue for that ever since you were sixteen.”
Elena has felt the weight of the magic looming over her for quite some time, feeling like she was destined for something more. This is when Bella steps in. As her fairy godmother, she was unable to make Elena’s tale turn out right. However, she has an unexpected alternative. She offers to take Elena on as an apprentice, and teach her how to be a fairy godmother in her own right.
It’s not an easy job, but Elena is used to hard work. Bella explains:
“All over the Five Hundred Kingdoms, down through time, there have been countless girls like you for whom the circumstances were not right… And the magic keeps gathering around them, trying to make it all work — oh, and by the way, we call that, the Tradition. The way that magic tries to set things on a particular course, you see… Among the many other things they do, the Fairy Godmothers are supposed to help that sort of thing along, like midwives… But quite often, I’m afraid, in fact more often than not, circumstances around that special person are just not going to allow the happy ending that the magic is pushing for.”
Bella explains that she was once a Cindergirl just like Elena. However, she became a Fairy Godmother when her path did not complete. She has spent her whole life since then trying to get the Tradition to follow happier paths. She has to fight against the Tradition itself, sometimes. Bella explains to Elena that:
“The Tradition doesn’t care, you see, whether the outcome of a story is a joy or a tragedy; if the circumstances are there, it just makes things follow down set paths.”
But what are these “paths?” Anything can become a path, as long as it becomes a famous and well-known narrative. Consider the fact that pretty much every culture has a Cinderella tale. It’s international, and it’s extremely well known. So whenever a girl starts to resemble Cinderella, the Tradition sets her on that path. In Elena’s case, there was no prince, no rescue. As Bella explains, not every path leads to a happily ever after.
In fact, many tales directly lead to tragedy; one example given is the “Fair Rosalinda” tale. In Fair Rosalinda, a beautiful peasant girl becomes the mistress of the king, and is poisoned by the queen. Her body is dumped in a river, and a musician makes an instrument from her bones or her hair. When the musician comes to court, his instrument will only say “the queen hath murdered me.” When Bella found a girl who was heading towards a Fair Rosalinda, she intervened and saved her. That’s what she does — she tries to pick a path with the best ending and nudge it along. Like Bella said, they’re pretty much magic midwifes.
Not Cinderella Anymore
Elena feels within herself that she, too, can be a godmother.
“Given a choice between an ordinary life, and a magical one — well, it was no choice at all.”
Having heard the explanation makes her life suddenly make more sense. The Tradition explains the looming sense of something that she has felt, particularly since she turned sixteen. She resents the Tradition and decides that, like Bella, she will fight for happy endings.
So, in an unfamiliar narrative, Cinderella becomes the Fairy Godmother. However, her life is not all “bibbidi-bobbidi-boo;” she trains hard to be able to control magic. Elena is given the blessing of the Elven King and Queen, who examine all new godmothers. She receives higher honors than most when they see her determination to set things as right as she can. Eventually, Bella retires, leaving Elena in charge. Having spent most of her life fighting the Tradition, she is satisfied with her new apprentice. She sees that Elena is “cut from the same cloth” as her and will fight for her kingdom and her people.
Elena “felt a surge of anger at the Tradition, that faceless, formless thing that pushed and pulled people about with no regard for what they might want or need.”
Of course, the story does not end there. This is, after all, a romance novel. Although the book up until this point has been a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story (or, rather, a coming-into-power story), the novel is only half over. The romance part kicks in when Elena, well into her godmothering, is set to test a series of questers at a crossroads. She takes on the familiar disguise of an old lady asking for help. The three questers she challenges are brothers, princes from a neighboring kingdom.
The first coldly ignores her. She curses him with the punishment of wandering in the forest until he is humbled, though she doubts it will take place anytime soon. The second brother cruelly tries to run her down on his horse, pricking her temper in a big way. She uses her magic to transform him into a donkey — claiming that if he is going to act like an ass, he might as well be one. The third brother is kind and helps the old lady. This earns him the assistance of the Fairy Godmother on his task.
Left with an ass, Elena decides to take him home and set him to work. She is determined to rid him of his arrogance and show him the way the other half lives. Elena lives in a cottage with four Brownies. Though they are all magical, they do a lot of work by hand to keep the cottage running. The ass, named Alexander, is put to work pulling logs, hauling bricks, and otherwise working harder than he ever has in his life.
Unfortunately, Elena must give Alexander every seventh day as a human or he would be lost in the donkey. When she does give him time as a human, she discovers a bit of the Tradition sneaking through — because Elena was supposed to marry a prince, the Tradition forces her to be attracted to an unmarried prince, particularly such a handsome one. The Tradition does not care that Alexander is really an ass. It wants to control her, and make her fit a comfortably familiar narrative.
At one point, Alexander tries to force himself on her. He is determined to rid her of her control, and she feels her body respond. However, Elena is stronger than the Tradition and blasts him on his back. She threatens to geld him if he tries that again. Furious at being pushed around by the Tradition even though she is a powerful magician, Elena strikes out, “gather[ing] her power around her, like storm clouds filled with the lightning of her anger.”
Lashing out, Elena “had the feeling of great power looming over her — but this time, it was waiting. Waiting for something. Some direction, perhaps? Whatever it was — it was certainly listening to her now.”
She commands that, although she will not reject love altogether, she will not allow herself to be pushed about and controlled. She is Elena Klovis, she is a Fairy Godmother, and she will be the one in control. Having said her piece, the Tradition seems to fall back into line, and Elena “wondered what she had bound — or what she had unleashed.”
This is where the romance story picks up. Alexander continues to be an ass, and Elena begins to despair over ever redeeming him. One day, however, a dryad helps him see how others see him. He realizes that he really is an ass. He turns things around, and Elena eventually allows him to become a man again. This complicates things, though. Elena begins to have erotic dreams about Alexander. Furious, she lashes out at the Tradition again, only to realize that it’s not the Tradition — it’s her. She is forced to realize that she is genuinely attracted to him.
Eventually Alexander is reformed enough to face a final challenge. Elena recruits the Elven King and Queen to test him. They present the scenario of a lord trying to rape one of his servants. Alexander angrily demands justice, whereas before he might have ignored it — or worse, joined in. Pleased with his progress, the Elven King and Queen bless him. It becomes apparent that he has some modicum of magical ability — not enough to become a powerful wizard in his own right, but enough to become a Champion, a magical knight.
He joins Elena’s household to train up in magical skill, and the romantic tension between them simmers. However, when they come together it is not a bawdy seduction, but a coming together of equals who are attracted to each other. They become lovers, and Elena rejoices in her happiness at the same time that she fears the consequences. Her Brownies, far older and more experienced, remind her that there is no place in the Tradition for a Godmother to have a princely lover. The Tradition will force them into a narrative, and it won’t be something good.
Time to Pay the Piper
Things do eventually come crashing down when Alexander’s brother, the one who won the quest, is attacked by an evil sorcerer from a different ‘Tradition.’ Elena fears that it was her actions that led to this end, because she defied the Tradition to seek her own happiness. She helps Alexander rescue the kingdom, both proud of him for his reversion to Champion and worried that he will die. Wracked by guilt, Elena does whatever she can to undo the damage. She ends up helping Alexander defeat the evil sorcerer and save his brother.
Following these events, Elena and Alexander must face a high council to explain their actions. However, whatever the council decides, Elena is confident that she and Alexander will remain together. They had, just that morning, married. She remarks that they had “broken the Traditional paths so completely that there isn’t a scrap of Tradition” left to dictate their actions.
Unexpectedly, the high council explains that things were not Elena’s fault. Their only rebuke is that Elena and Alexander rushed into action so quickly (and perhaps unthinkingly). Alexander points out that speed was needed to save his brother. The high council praise Elena’s quick thinking. As far as her marriage is concerned, their only response is to joke that it is traditional for Godmothers to take lovers, but if she wants to limit herself to one man, that is her choice. Elena is pleased to learn that she isn’t destined to live the lonely life her Brownies suggest. She can have her magic, have her husband, and very likely have some cake too.
Happily Ever After?
So in the end, Elena ends up married to the prince after all. However, things definitely didn’t get there the way we might think. Instead of being rescued by a Fairy Godmother, Elena herself becomes the godmother. She rescues others with her determination and quick wit. Her prince is not Prince Charming, but rather an ass who learned his lesson and becomes a magician himself. Instead of a ball, they have a massive battle. The romance story and the traditional fantasy narrative work together, allowing for the romantic story to unfold in new and unconventional ways. The intervention of magic allows Elena to take charge, but it is ultimately her strong will and intelligence that save the day.
In a Q&A presented at the end of the book, Lackey discusses her affinity for fantasy novels. She claims that “fantasy for [her] has always gone far beyond the magic rings and castles of the classical fairy tale, although heaven knows [she] love[s] the classical fairy tales!” In The Fairy Godmother, Lackey manages to combine her love for the classic fairy tales with a progressivism and an eye toward change that comes through in Elena’s struggle to be in control of her own life. Elena is no wilting princess or damsel in distress, and in the end she becomes a far more interesting character. Her story is a lovingly crafted new perspective on a classic narrative.