Welcome to the fifth of my short story reviews for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. The collection RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined has proved a rich source so far, and the same is true of this story, even if the target audience is, perhaps, a little different than for the rest.
The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind
by Kate Hall
Minka is the daughter of an astronomer, living in the distant north where the sun is barely seen for half the year. From their home in the valleys thick clouds obscure the sky, but up in the mountains the stars are as clear as diamonds on black velvet. Her father is a loving man who raises her alone after misfortune and the cruel elements conspire to steal her mother from her, and as she grows up her only dream is to follow in his footsteps — but the cold world he ventures into is a dangerous place, as they both know to their sorrow. His life is not one for little girls.
When, for her twelfth birthday, her father gives her pretty gifts but again refuses to allow her to join him in his studies of the sky, Minka politely tells him that he may as well have given her nothing. She goes to her room, ignoring him when he comes to her door, consumed with bitterness until she falls asleep. She is woken by a different voice, calling to her from outside her window — the voice of the North Wind, whose every word cuts sharp against the skin, but who can part the clouds long enough to show her a tantalising glimpse of what her father denies her…
…and who can show her much more if only she will follow him, up into the freezing mountains…
Unlike the other stories in this collection, The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind is really written for a junior audience — a detail I find quite interesting in itself. It’s no surprise to find adults reading YA fiction (Mrs. Yaga is an example, in fact — RETOLD touches various bases), but it’s probably much rarer to find one reading children’s fiction for their own pleasure, the prospect of their offspring soon being silently asleep notwithstanding. If I’m right, this would be a shame. At their best, fairytales mix the simple with the profound, and there is no age at which a clear and moving little story should be ruled out, be it to provoke thought or just to entertain.
This story leaps from a slightly more traditional, but relatively recent, fairytale: The Princess Who Met The North Wind, by Wendy Eyton. The original story does tweak the heroine trope to good effect, presenting a princess in the vein of the super-rich sweet-sixteen brat, but it comes firmly back into the fold with a very traditional princely rescue — as soon as the spoiled girl has been suitably reprimanded, learned her lesson, and is ready for her reward for doing so, of course…
Kate Hall’s version offers us a young protagonist whose dissatisfaction with her father’s gifts is only petulant because of his failure to recognise who she really is. She has one role model, him, ironically a professional observer, who tries to funnel her towards a conventional gender role because he doesn’t see deeper than the trappings of her sex, gently dismissing her atypical interests.
Then, unlike the formulaic fairytale rescue of a damsel protagonist by a male hero, here Minka refuses to simply give up in the face of a frigid fate; when help comes, female help, it finds her with matters comfortably in hand — no rescue necessary, just perhaps a little aid. The boon she is given is simply the return of tools she had already thought to bring with her, and her ultimate reward nothing more than recognition by her father of both her abilities and his error in denying her the chance to be herself.
Some people rail against the idea (I don’t think it would be wrong to call this an example) of the feminist revisionism of classic stories, and certainly it would be possible to pay the merest lip service to the notion and achieve nothing worthwhile. Change boys to girls, change men to women, change nothing else and call it “new”… why bother? In The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind, we see the potential value realised. This is a story with a heroine and message which an audience of either sex can strongly relate to, things that may not be so true of the original.
Just one more short story to go, next Sunday, but before that I’ll sign off on the main Once Upon A Time quest with (I’m actually dreading it) a cinematic “classic”. Until then…