Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

18 Mar 2011

(Short Story) Unfairy Tale by: Tim Pratt

(Reaction) Waiting for a Satisfying Ending by: Antonio Conejos

View other reactions on works by Tim Pratt.

Tim Pratt's Unfairy Tale is at first glance simply a fairy tale with some of the details changed. There is still a princess to be won (the beauty) by a fair prince (the mortal) who is to be impeded by a wicked antagonist (the djinn Molter Keen).

The djinn though, while taking the place of the witch found in most fairy tales, is a fish out of water. He is a creature of the desert, The sands sing at night, and whisper with shifting. Yet the dessert has begun to change to suit the landscape of the traditional fairy tale, sand and dunes morphed to, flowers and grasses and rain.

As the setting changes to conform to the traditional standards of a fairy tale, so too must the djinn conform. Molter is not free to unleash all his powers to prevent the mortal from reaching the beauty. He must abide by the rules of the genre and lay obstacles only. Corrigan, who is the representative of the green folk who have changed the desert and the djinn, insists that Molter must abide by the dictates of the fairy tale, Have you no grace, no honor? If he can reach the beauty and kiss her, he will break the sleeping curse and have her love. We may impede his path, but we cannot harm him directly.

Yet the desert is an incongruous place for a traditional fairy tale. This is highlighted by Corrigan's suggestion that Molter place the beauty in a tower, surround the tower with thorns, or thick trees that grow more quickly than he can cut them down. Or a stream full of snapping, biting fish. These suggestions are ridiculous to Molter, who knows his dessert well, 'A stream?' Molter said. He knelt and took a handful of sand.

Molter attempts to conform to the conventions dictated by Corrigan but becomes frustrated by their lack of inefficacy, I could have gutted the mortal... Could have filled with his throat with sand. Torn out his eyes. Not stupid obstacles.

After these failures though, Molter begins to realize that these strange interlopers in his desert (the beauty, the mortal, Corrigan) can be viewed in terms he is familiar with. Corrigan compared her skin to snow, her lips to roses, but Molter did not know these things. He saw her skin was white as bleached boned her lips red as the sunset seen through dust. Her hair was yellow as snake's bile, and soft as camel's hair. Once Molter understands the characters and rules of the game, he subverts the traditional fairy tale structure by using its own rules against it.

Molter knows that, per the rules of the story, the mortal must kiss the beauty. Knowing this, he places a bevy of scorpions inside the beauty's mouth, which emerge and bite the mortal as he leans in for his kiss. Essentially Molter defeats the mortal by exploiting the rules of the fairy tale with his own desert sensibility.

Unfairy Tale then would seem to be a rejection of the standard fairy tale, as demonstrated by Molter's twisting of the rules of the genre against itself. However this is not to imply that Molter is himself bereft of any rules. He too follows a code, just one that is different from that of the traditional fairy tale.

Molter's code is radically different from the conventions of a traditional fairy tale. This is also seen in Molter's incongruity in a fairy tale environment; he sticks out like a sore thumb. Molter's rules stem from the desert and from respect for the dead (this is in contrast to the fairy tale which often revolves around the resurrection of life, ie. waking up the princess from her long sleep), The mortal recovered his grip, but the body rolled from the shelf and fell a dozen feet to the ground. Molter started toward the body, angered by the casual sacrilege... He knelt by the bloated woman-corpse that the mortal had displaced. Reverently, with hands of golden sand, Molter returned her to her place on the wall.

In the end, Molter reasserts the code of the dessert against that of Corrigan and his ilk. This reassertion is seen even on the physical level. At the end, Molter has hands of golden sand as he has torn off the mortal body given to him by Corrigan's king.

Unfairy Tale demolishes the conventions of a genre but then ends by replacing these with new rules. As such, it could be argued that the story is itself a fairy tale, just with different conventions. One code of conduct swapped out for another.


This was just an alright short story for me. Unfairy Tale seems to go out of its way rather blatantly to showcase how it's not a fairy tale. Certainly the scenes of death and Molter's affinity for creepy crawlies won't be found in your latest Disney movie (which is, for better or for worse, how most of us view a traditional fairy tale). However, Unfairy Tale leaves you wanting more. Sure, the author broke convention, now what? I'd have liked to hear more about Corrigan's people and their motivation in enforcing the rules of the fairy tale as they see it. As it stands, the short story opens up an intriguing door but doesn't lead you through it.

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