It’s always interesting to me when an author does something new or unexpected with material from oral traditions – fairy tales and the like, and that’s very much what is happening in Mercedes Lackey’s series of novels set in The Hundred Kingdoms. She’s written three books (so far – I don’t know if she intends to write more) in this series, and I’ve recently gotten around to reading the first two:
The Fairy Godmother
One Good Knight
The overall conceit is that in her world of The Hundred Kingdoms, what we consider to be the conventions of fairy tales are actually a powerful force known as The Tradition, which shapes the lives of people to conform to the conventions of fairy tales – sometimes to their benefit, but often to their detriment. Acting as a balance against the untrammelled consequences of Tradition gone wild are Sorcerers, Sorceresses, and above all, Fairy Godmothers, whose job it is to watch out for situations where The Tradition is making a mess of things, and nudge things around a bit (OK, sometimes a lot) so that the power of The Tradition flows along paths that result in at least a better result for the people involved, if not the best possible result.
For instance, how do you manipulate the Tradition of Rapunzel so that dozens of young princes aren’t drawn to her tower to be maimed or killed trying to rescue her, before the prince whose destiny it is to save her finally shows up? How do you manage to avert the Tradition that a maiden saved from a horrible fate by a young knight must end up madly in love with him? And so on.
These books are very witty, even gently satirical concerning the relationships between genders, classes, and races (humans, elves, dragons and so on), and make brilliant use of the range, variety, and interrelationships of folklore motifs – in fact, an afficionado of oral tradition may well feel as though she’s wandering through an animated adaptation of Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. At the same time, I found the conceit an interesting comment on the ways in which perceptions, expectations, choices and actions are moulded and driven by social and cultural conventions. It’s not easy to challenge the weight of tradition in any world, and Lackey’s magical Tradition is a metaphor, I think, for just how difficult it is to change ideas about such things as the natural roles of men and women in society, and how, when one does try, the result is rarely a clean break with the past, but rather, an accommodation with the past that moves change forward one step at a time.
Fun reading, but with a hidden kick – a bit of a change for Lackey, who’s not always this subtle in her social messages.