- Pelzmantel, book cover scan courtesy of Spilled Candy Books.
In This Issue
Fiction in Review: Pelzmantel, A Medieval Tale
Pelzmantel: A Medieval Tale by K.A. Laity, Spilled Candy Books, PO Box 5202, Niceville, Fla. 32578-5202; 216 pages; ISBN: 1892718464; C. 2003
Fairy tales are all about magic, but K.A. Laity's retelling of this story from the Brothers Grimm is much more of a magical feminist tale than either of the late eighteenth century German siblings might have had in mind.
In this version, which is a wonderful mix of Scandanavian and Celtic mythology, Queen Gunnhild dies giving birth to her heir, Princess Hallgerd. The king, crippled with his grief and influenced by Thomas, his unfortunate choice for new advisor, refuses to have anything to do with the child. She is left to be raised by Nanna, the queen's faithful old nurse.
But Nanna is no ordinary nurse. Centuries old, she is a witch, wise woman and herbalist who came to this land as a young woman from Ireland. She has served the female line of rulers for a very long time.
Sadly, Thomas is also no ordinary advisor. Coming from the same country as Nanna, he is recognized by her as Maldachta, one of the evil sons of Bricriu. His sole occupation is to cause mischief and grief in whatever way most entertains him. What amuses him now is to poison the king's mind and destroy the land and line of queens that Nanna has come to love. If he can destroy Nanna in the process so much the better, for he recognizes her as one of the daughters of Mna who are enemies of the sons of Bricriu. A geas was placed long ago on the daughters of Mna so that they would never be able to use their magic directly against one of his kind. In his arrogance, however, he underestimates Nanna's intelligence and resourcefulness. She counts on this as she says, "He thinks because I use my skills for health and happiness that it is all I can do cure a cold or soften an ache. They are merely the most called-for services. But I know great magick and I will use it as it is necessary."
Nanna teaches the princess with love and storytelling until she becomes a fine young woman ready to take her rightful place as the ruling queen. But when she comes before the king he is so lost in madness that he believes his daughter is the only woman who can replace his long dead wife, and insists they be married. Through Thomas's trickery Nanna and Hallgerd are imprisoned to insure they do not escape before the wedding takes place. The women perform some magic and trickery of their own, however. With Hallgerd cloaked in an amazing coat made from pieces of the fur of many willing animals, and Nanna disguised in the body of a fox, they escape and embark on a quest on which their lives, and the lives of the people of Hallgerd's land, depend.
Laity's storytelling is magic in itself. The language is beautiful and
weaves vivid pictures for the reader's imagination. Set in the middle
ages with authentic flair, the tale still holds much that is true for
today's women of wisdom. In the following passage Unn, a servant and friend
to both women, has just found that not only is Nanna a witch, but so is
another woman helping them.
"Goodness," Unn shakes her head, "it's getting so there's a witch on every corner! No disrespect, of course, lady." She reddens.
"None taken, my friend. What wife is not a conjure wife when she can be? The little tricks passed from mother to daughter to make life richer, a little easier, more lucky. These little rituals are magick too. It's a pity your land has so long taken a dim view of our powers. Many hide their abilities rather than face torment or cruelty."
How many of us still find it necessary to keep our spirituality, our affiliations, our magic hidden from much of the public?
Rewriting fairy tales and giving them new settings has been done, and done well for some time now. Many books by Robin McKinley are among the best of these. K.A. Laity's story with a witch/wise woman as the heroine is different, however. Like Elizabeth Cunningham's How To Spin Gold: A Woman's Tale, a very unusual telling of the Rumplestiltskin story, this one holds that welcome touch of feminist spirituality.
I look forward to more great books from Ms. Laity.