There’s a lot of mileage in fairy tales, and I don’t know why people keep going back to the same old Disney classics when they could just open Grimm’s and find something fresh to remake in their own image. My guess is that they’ve read The Seventh Bride and are intimidated. Maybe they saw how it was crammed full of personality and magic and innovation even though it came in at less than 200 pages and thought, “nah, better not.” Maybe they did try, but failed to live up to T. Kingfisher’s small, fierce powerhouse of insight. I sympathize, hypothetical writers! The Seventh Bride is pretty great!
Rhea begins the tale as the curious but generally content daughter of the village miller, spending her days assisting her parents and plotting revenge on a particularly aggressive local swan. This all comes to a screeching halt when she receives an offer of marriage from the mysterious Lord Crevan, who nobody has ever met and who certainly has no real reason to want to marry her. Rhea is pressured into acceptance, and finds herself engaged to and living with a man who grows more and more sinister with every tick-tock of his manor’s creepy clock. For starters, he wakes her every night and forces her to complete a test, and if she fails, the punishment is marriage. She won’t be his first, or second, or even sixth wife, either–and the other wives aren’t dead yet. Probably. Rhea only meets a few to start, and between madness, malice, and other charming traits, she’s not sure she wants the full introduction. Unfortunately, she’ll be getting very cozy with all six of them if she fails one of Lord Crevan’s tests. How she’s supposed to do that with only a bit of milling experience and a friendly hedgehog, she has no idea.
Yes, the hedgehog! you wonder. Well, there’s a saying that goes “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Which is to say, foxes are known for their cleverness, but all the cleverness in the world can’t get them anything more than a sore paw when the hedgehog decides to go on the defensive and curl up. I’m curious to know if Kingfisher had this adage in mind when she created Rhea’s little companion. Certainly it doesn’t hurt to think of Rhea–and most of the brides, in fact–as hedgehogs, particularly skilled at a single thing, while Lord Crevan is the fox. The women can’t outfox him, can’t beat him at his own game; they can only try to do what they do best in order to defeat him.
Hedgehogs or no, there’s a lot to be said here about the politics of power. Rhea knows she can’t resist Lord Crevan’s offer of marriage because she’s a peasant and he’s a lord, and her whole family would suffer if she refused. Likewise she can’t stop playing his nightly games, because losing will have dire consequences–but there is no win condition in these cases, only a maintenance of the status quo. The only real success comes in choosing not to play, but Rhea can’t actually escape or opt out. It’s the kind of double-bind that the disadvantaged often face, and the wives embody different responses to it, from passive acceptance to active support of the abusive behavior.
Rhea eventually chooses various forms of resistance over acceptance, but she can’t do it alone. She needs the witch-wife, the clock-wife, and many others to foment a real rebellion–and while you don’t have to read it as the success of diverse, radical feminism, it certainly made my reading experience better. The rather casual, tongue-in-cheek tone also really enhances what might otherwise be a horror story of the depressingly-real variety, and turns it into a compulsively readable gem that I devoured in a day.
The climax especially is page-turning-ly tense, introducing the potential for many of the other wives to turn against Rhea or simply fail to help her. I was genuinely uncertain about which way certain characters would go, which is always a pleasant surprise. We also get the line, “I would follow this hedgehog into the mouth of hell,” which was another surprise, and a laugh-out-loud one at that. If ever there were a book that could make me believe in following hedgehogs into the netherworld, this would be it.
Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, also contains a retelling of this story in free verse. It lacks hedgehogs, however, so I can’t fully endorse it as an alternative. The Elegance of the Hedgehog does mention hedgehogs (obviously) and contains fiction, but lacks fairytales. The Fox and the Hedgehog by Isaiah Berlin is literary criticism and contains only metaphorical foxes and hedgehogs. Yes, to meet your needs for quality writing, a great story, and hedgehogs, you’ll just have to read The Seventh Bride.