The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman – A twist on the concept of the feral child raised by animals instead tells about a kid raised by the spirits of the dead, with some help from a few other supernatural beings who hang around graveyards. After his parents are killed by an assassin, the boy is adopted by the Owenses and named Nobody, a play on the line “he’s only a pauper whom nobody owns” from a poem generally attributed to Thomas Noel. The line is also quoted in a Smiths song and as part of a nonsense poem on one of the color plates in The Emerald City of Oz.
Having the graveyard where Nobody lives date back to the Roman era allows him to interact with the dead from many different eras of English history, and various bits of folklore are incorporated. It seems that Gaiman has an obsession with secret societies of ruthless criminals, as seen here in the Jacks of All Trades, killers and practitioners of black magic who are all named (or at least nicknamed) after famous Jacks of folklore.
The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre, by Jack Zipes – I believe I first heard of Zipes when I came across a collection of both ancient and modern fairy tales that he edited, including L. Frank Baum’s “The Queen of Quok.” A now-retired Professor of German, he has been a major proponent in the importance of fairy tales. This book touches on several different subjects, largely centering around how the fairy tale began as an oral tradition, and the old tales continue to evolve even long after they’ve been written down. He presents the fairy tale world as one that can be weird, but is inherently more fair than the real one. Some of the chapters highlight female themes in the genre, including women who told the tales, fairies and witches as important figures, downtrodden girls as protagonists, and the changing themes of the Bluebeard story. Zipes also argues against a few more recent theories about the development of fairy tales, but since I hadn’t read the works he was referring to, these parts were less interesting to me. Despite the description of the book insisting that it “presents a provocative new theory,” I don’t know that it really says anything particularly controversial. To me, it was mostly an interesting overview of the subject.
Earwig and the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones – I believe this is the last book to be written entirely by Jones (The Islands of Chaldea was completed by her sister). It’s a short tale based on the traditional fairy tale motif of a child successfully outwitting a wicked witch. The witch is even named Bella Yaga, an obvious nod to the ubiquitous figure from Russian folklore. Living with her are a talking cat familiar and a monster called the Mandrake who can summon demons to do his bidding. The illustrations, at least in the version I read, are by Paul O. Zelinsky, who’s done a lot of work on children’s books.
The Ogre of Oglefort, by Eva Ibbotson – Another last work by a fantasy author, as Ibbotson died only a few months before Jones did. I’ve only recently discovered her, and she has a style I enjoy, at least in the two books of hers I’ve read. It’s the tale of a kindly hag accompanied by a friendly troll, a reluctant wizard, and an orphan boy named Ivo who are tasked by the Norns with slaying an ogre and rescuing a princess. It turns out that the Norns have misinterpreted their vision, however; the princess is actually nagging the ogre to turn her into a bird, and he’s worn out and depressed from transforming people who requested it. The hag and her friends help to bring about a successful resolution for everyone involved. I actually wish there had been a little more about the life of the hag and her tenants in London before they came to Oglefort. The story plays on several fantasy stereotypes, sometimes in the obvious way of making beings that are normally thought of as nasty being helpful and friendly, but also in slightly more subtle ways as with the ogre himself and the rather ignorant Fates.