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Fiction: 'The Life of Her Mother' by Amy Coombe

Completing Dahl: Two Fables

This year I’ve been blogging once a month here at Pornokitsch about trying to read everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. I’m closing in on the end! Just a few more odds and ends to go.

The usual full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote, save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.


Two FablesTwo Fables (1986) 

It’s difficult for me to believe I’m almost done with this project! It’s been really rewarding overall, even if I did go through a pretty dire stretch over the summer. Gremlins. The word still makes me shudder. Regardless, this time next month I’ll be dutifully typing up a response to, ahem, Roald Dahl’s Guide to Railway Safety, the final book of his I have yet to read. And maybe reviewing the film based on Beware of the Dog. Crazy!

So... Two Fables. I managed to nab a water damaged 1st edition of this 1986 release for only three American dollars, totally worth it for the slender volume (64 pages). It contains, as you might imagine, two fables, both original to Dahl, and published together as a limited edition in honor of his 70th birthday. It also contains illustrations by Graham Dean, who is still alive and painting. Dean’s watercolors are beautiful and unsettling in full color - in black and white, as they’re reproduced in Two Fables, they reminded me strongly of Stephen Gammell’s illustrations for Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. They suit the fables very well. I don’t mean to imply that Two Fables is scary - just bleak, and pared down, like Alvin Schwartz’s retellings. They’re also among the most misanthropic stories of his, I now feel qualified to say. One is all about rape; the other, how becoming pretty makes you awful. Fun times!

“The Princess and the Poacher”

“Although Hengist was now eighteen years old, he still showed no desire to follow in his father’s trade of basket-weaving.”

Oh yeah. Here we go.

Hengist, Our Hero for this fable, somewhat understandably doesn’t want to be a basket weaver, because honestly that sounds like it sucks. But it’s not like Hengist has some greater ambition in life. Mostly he wants to be a ladies’ man. Unfortunately for Hengist, he is hideously ugly. He has a “squat body,” “short bandy legs,” “extra-long arms,” and a “crumpled face.” At least he’s strong—he’s known for several impressive feats. The ladies don’t care if you can lift a carthorse out of a ditch if you look like some sort of troglodytic ape, so poor Hengist is punted into the friendzone by all the maidens in his town. My theory is this probably has less to do with his hideous face and more to do with the fact that he, uh, lusts after them “with unabated passion” and makes no attempt to hide his desire. Indeed, “Whenever he spied a girl milking a cow or hanging out the washing, he would stop and stare and yearn most terribly to possess her.”

Come on, Hengist. Being a creepo won’t help your chances!

This is not the moral of this fable.

Anyways, Hengist fortunately finds an outlet for his lady-wanting energies—he takes long walks in the woods and becomes a sort of naturalist. Which of course leads to him poaching. Now, the poaching sequence in the story is beautifully told and harmonizes fascinatingly with the poaching literature I’ve read (what?), like Richard Jeffries’ writing, and the scenes in Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Marcella. Apparently with poaching once you start you can't stop, and true to form Hengist’s poaching starts as a lark and becomes an obsession, worthy of the risk of execution by the king and his dukes. And it stops being enough to poach in the woods around his cottage—he decides to take on the Royal Forest.

Hengist finds some excellent if unexpected game in the Royal Forest—the king’s only daughter, “pure and smooth as a silken glove,” whatever that means. Hengist wants a piece of that, bad, and here is where the story gets weirdly dark. He sees her, and remembers that he used to like girls instead of chasing after leverets all the time. On second thought, girls seem like the better deal, but what to do? Hengist considers running up on her and declaring his love, but knows she would be repulsed by his fugly face and weird body. So then he literally considers sneaking up behind her, clapping his hand over her mouth, and raping her. Fortunately for the girl, “he quickly pushed this foul notion out of his mind, for he abhorred violence of any kind.”

I dunno? Like, I don’t know if you get Brownie points for only imagining exactly how you would rape a girl, Hengist.

In the end, Hengist decides to go for the tried and true Nice Guy tactic of doing something platonic for the girl he wants. But Hengist doesn't get a chance to get to always be there for her when her bad boy boyfriend hurts her, again. No, he's forced to instead save her from a rampaging boar.

Lucky for Hengist, the king sees the daring rescue, and decides right there that his daughter should marry this guy. He’s nice! But you know how seventeen year old girls are, they never do what you tell them to do, so the king concocts an elaborate scheme to make his daughter fall in love with the guy who was just fairly seriously contemplating raping her in the woods. The scheme is this: the king figures that Hengist doesn’t get laid regularly with a mug like his, so he tells his kingdom that Hengist can rape any woman he wants, at any time. Or, rather, he is “granted the absolute right to ravish any maiden, wench, lady, dame, Countess, Duchess, or other female in the kingdom whenever he so desires.” He’s pretty sure this will work out for the best.

That’s dark, Roald. Darker than usual. Even for you.

So new Count Hengist gets a Card of Authority stating he can have his way with whomever he wants, but like, it doesn’t work out for him because women all run away from him, understandably. Worse, even though now that he can have all the ladies, Hengist doesn’t want any of them. Good thing, because in the end his decision to not rape girls because he can makes the princess fall in love with him. 

Perhaps the moral is the secret of wedded happiness is to have surprisingly low standards for male behavior? Who can say!

“Princess Mammalia”

Princess Mammalia wakes up on the morning of her seventeenth birthday to find she has somehow become a smokin' hot babe. Dahl lets us know that before this, she was plain and dumpy with a “thick neck” (?) but that's okay because now she’s literally dazzling, like literally in the sense that people screw up their eyes around her because her beauty is blazing, brilliant, and blinding.

Unfortunately, this new loveliness doesn’t do great things for Princess Mammalia’s personality. She finds it is “much more difficult for a ravishing beauty to remain modest and gentle than it is for a plain girl.” She can’t help but be amazed by her new power over men, and using it, because every man in the kingdom falls victim to it. Former PUAs forget their The Game-sanctioned tactics of negging and then comforting women they want to get with, and just drool all over themselves doing things for her like some pathetic beta male. Servants forget their station, and after “several unsavoury incidents” (which are never explained) the King castrates all the men in his palace. “Awesome,” says Princess Mammalia.

But, power corrupts and all that, so soon the newly-babealicious princess starts scheming to get even more power. It’s not enough that people gather outside her window to try to see her. She wants to rule them. Unfortunately, her father is in great health. More beautiful than patient, Mammalia starts scheming, and when a curious old man comes to her window and tells her the best way to murder people is to feed them gross rotten oysters, she seizes the chance to commit the perfect crime. Unfortunately, the curious old man isn’t Rumpelstiltskin, it’s her dad wearing a fake beard, so in the end things don’t work out exactly as Mammalia plans. I mean, he’s going to be disappointed in you, Mammalia. He had all his servants castrated for you. Why you gotta try to kill him?

The moral of this one is apparently don’t hit puberty. And, if you must, don’t try to pull one over on your dad, because he’s always a step ahead.

Two Fables had me scratching my head. I appreciate what I think Dahl was trying to do—even the most grotesque fairy tales usually have morals that enforce the social order, like "Thousandfurs," or "The Robber Bridegroom." Don’t try to rape your daughter! Don’t be a cannibal! Come on, guys. Figure it out already.

Dahl’s stories, by contrast, possess conclusion that are just as if not more horrifying than the plots. I don’t object to this—one doesn’t love Dahl for his likeable characters—but veneering the cold misanthropic heart of Roald Dahl with fairy tale dream logic makes for a really grim (see what I did there) reading experience. Plus, the focus on rape in the first one just felt... really weird.

That's why I have to call Two Fables a mixed bag. I really liked both stories, but there is a weird, almost Piers Anthony-like element to this one that gave me serious pause and reduced my overall enjoyment. I don’t casually compare any writer to Piers Anthony, much less one I like as much as Dahl, but like… here is the thing. Guys in Piers Anthony novels are pretty much always casually thinking about raping girls, like that is totally a normal thing to do, and are rewarded with consensual sex for being nice enough not to act on their impulses. Maybe it was just the wisdom of the time—Piers Anthony had cranked out nine Xanth novels by the time Two Fables came out—but like, both “The Princess and the Poacher” and “Princess Mammalia” have crazy horny guys who can barely keep it together long enough not to rape girls. It’s true that only Hengist is rewarded for his restraint; the guys in “Princess Mammalia” are just around to show us what a stone cold bitch she has become. Still. It’s a rather perplexing motif, and one that is rarer in Dahl than in other writers. Rape appears in his work a handful of times, sure… one even could argue that 90% of the sex in My Uncle Oswald is rape... but it is played for laughs because it’s a sexy woman using chemical compounds to “seduce” men who probably wanted to bang her anyways, am I right lads? Rape is kind of played for laughs in Two Fables, as well, but it just comes across as kinda nasty.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say, so I guess I’ll just wrap things up. At least I’m pretty sure that next month’s Guide To Railway Safety will be less rapey...