by Linda Medley
BW, 457 pgs
$29.95 US / Higher in Canada
Most clever children wonder what happens after a fairy tale has come to an end. What happens to the kingdom after Sleeping Beauty goes off with Prince Charming? What does “happily ever after” look like? And where does it take place?
In Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting, which collects 17 issues of the comic published between 1996 and 2001 published, most of the action takes place in the titular castle. This is the place where major and minor fairy tale characters end up after their stories are told, where funny, domestic, happily-ever-afters happen.
Castle Waiting, with its heavy paper and creamy, old-fashioned-children’s-book hard cover, is as lovely a volume as Fantagraphics Books has ever put out-and that’s saying something; this is a publisher whose bindings and design are always perfectly suited to the comics within. And Medley’s drawing style is deceptively simple-the artwork looks like one of those Juvenile Classics, those old “Great Literature for Children” comic books in which stories like Gulliver’s Travels or Oliver Twist were simplified and illustrated for the kiddies. The style sets you up and knocks you down by making your brain think Hey, this is familiar, I know this story, even when we’re off on a tangent of Medley’s own invention.
Medley’s source material is eclectic: classic Perrault and Grimm stories, older folktales and myths, even the lives of mythical Catholic saints are incorporated into this cattle call of familiar characters whose stories aren’t quite over.
There’s a history of feminist authors using fairy tales as literary material. In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue explored the sexualities of fairy-tale heroines, while in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter re-wrote old folktales with even more violence and gore than the originals. Medley’s daring addition to the fairy-tale narrative isn’t ignored sex or expunged violence, but self-awareness. In this magical Medieval Europe That Never Was, wise servants, witches and even the Beauty herself reflect on what strange lives they’ve led and how mundane a happily-ever-after can be.
Female characters are the focus of Castle Waiting, from the lovely, spindle-stunned Princess Medora of the introduction, to Lady Jain, a pregnant, wealthy, runaway wife from a far-off country. Jain arrives at Castle Waiting to give birth to a stunningly ugly yet beloved son, and reveals (in flashback) an increasingly familiar-sounding life story. Jain, observant and a compulsive reader, coaxes the castle’s other residents’ stories out of them, and the result is a collection of ex-traveller’s tales, all touched by the fantastic.
The longest story Jain hears belongs to Sister Peace, a member of the unconventional Solicitine Nuns, whose adventures take up the last third of the book.
Peace’s origin details her initiation into the Solicitine Order of independent, wisecracking and bearded (!) nuns. The history of the order, told to a young Peace by the abbey’s mother superior, as well as the Abbess’s own life story-about circus life complete with two-headed women and handsome lion-taming gypsies-is an epic tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale.
Medley, though herself a Californian, gives Peace and the other sisters a particularly Midwestern, practical sense of humour. Peace takes great pleasure explaining how Castle Waiting’s roof is patched with chicken poop, to the point of singing “chicken dung, chicken dung, everyone should get them some”. Most of the other sisters are equally eccentric and headstrong.
Unfortunately, the story of the Solicitines takes over from the less-repetitive Castle Waiting tales. There are too many accounts of how the nuns, future and former, married their dull true loves. I was often impatient for Medley to return to the castle and its neglected residents-like the enchanted blacksmith, Iron Henry, and the bird-headed butler Rackham. Their full stories are desperately waiting to told.
Apart from this story derailment, Castle Waiting holds together marvelously. It doesn’t impose new endings on old tales (I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Disney for letting the Little Mermaid live) and it manages to keep readers guessing. The seeds of familiar tales are only jumping-off points: “What next? What then?” (Emily Zimmerman)