Forgotten Folktales & Treasure Hunting in Secondhand Book Stores

I’m the kinda person who sometimes likes to listen to the radio. Now this is in spite of the fact that I have a pretty sufficient music collection, one I spent my pocket money on in my teenage years, and most of my earnings while I lived briefly in London. I like to think of listening to the radio as the closest I’ll come to gambling. It speaks to the optimist in me. The beauty of it is that, with radio, you never know what to expect next. My experience with the VH1 music channel is a similar thing. Yes, they seem to play Aqua’s Barbie Girl more frequently than I’d like. And yet, one song later and I might be transported back to my misspent youth with a Smashing Pumpkins classic or dancing in the lounge to Lauryn Hill.

Walking into a secondhand bookshop is the same sort of rush for me. The anticipation of the unexpected. I’ve often been loathe of such stores that place all their classics in one section, easy to locate. I once stopped frequenting a particular secondhand bookshop because of this. If I knew exactly where to find J.M. Coetzee or John Irving, where was the delight when I had previously discovered their literature after an afternoon of searching. Of course, my love of the humble secondhand bookshop has remained undeterred by such small disappointments.

What I think many do not understand is that books have a funny lifespan. They appear in trade paperback or hardback, and then months later in a smaller format (and nowadays, electronic format as well). Unless they receive critical acclaim or become widely popular, and because of this, enter into a kind of English ‘canon’ of literature, they go out of print after a time. As such, much of what you stumble upon in a secondhand bookshop can be incredibly valuable as additions to your book collection even though they might have cost you a fraction of what they would in an Exclusive Books or CNA.

There is also a difference in approach that often leads to special finds in these kinds of establishments. Most people, walking into a bookshop, come with a list of recommendations or in the knowledge that their favourite author has a new book out. In a secondhand book store, however, you will often leave with something altogether surprising. Beyond this, I can be somewhat sentimental about these secondhand gems, with their dog-eared and yellowed pages, with their cursive inscriptions to loved ones. In giving them a new home, I am keeping their stories alive.

When I walked into such a treasure trove in Humansdorp, I had no idea what I might find. I wish I could tell you that the place still stands today, but sadly it is now a dairy shop. I will forever remember it though by the book, Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, as retold by Alison Lurie and illustrated by Margot Tomes. I am a great enthusiast of fairytales. Italo Calvino and Angela Carter’s respective collections of fairytales both have prime positioning on my shelves alongside the complete collection of Grimm’s. Yet none of these is quite as special to me as Clever Gretchen…

Today, it could be argued that the most popular form of the fairytale is that which has been commodified and altered for the purposes of movie production houses. With the release of their first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney followed with a number of successful films based on well-known and beloved fairytales. Among these were Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. In these films, the general narrative entailed a beautiful young woman who was ultimately saved by her handsome prince.

With the contemporary criticisms that such films have received, recent cinematic revisions of the fairytale have attempted to provide children with less passive female protagonists and to rewrite ‘happy endings’ so that they do not necessarily close with a marriage to a prince and saviour. One such example is the release of Brave by Pixar, a subsidiary of Disney.

The princess of the film is presented early on with a host of suitors who have come to win her hand in a display of their masculine prowess. However, our princess is strong-willed and does not wish to marry, demonstrating instead that her own prowess far exceeds that of her suitors. A far cry from the passive princesses of other tales, she succeeds in trumping the young men during an archery competition. A family argument ensues and the daughter enlists the help of a witch. From here on out, the narrative becomes centred around the relationship of mother and daughter as the princess must save the queen from forever being trapped in the form of a bear.

Alison Lurie makes a similar point with Clever Gretchen… as she retells forgotten folktales wherein the girls are the ones who are triumphant, the girls are the ones who save the day. In her introduction, Lurie laments that, in the tales we are most familiar with, it is the “heroes who seem to have all the interesting adventures,” while the women must simply “wait patiently for the right prince to come along.” She insists that these kinds of fairytales have promoted the notion that “girls are supposed to be beautiful and good and helpless and dull.” But with the stories that she has rescued from obscurity, no more.

One day, when I perhaps have a daughter of my own, I will read her these tales. She will learn from Gretchen to be clever. She will learn from Manka to aspire to be just and fair. She will learn the value of helping others from Elena. She will learn from Mizilca that being a woman is no limitation. She will learn from the baker’s daughter that generosity has its own rewards. And she will learn from Kate Crackernuts that there is no need for vanity in this world. Like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, these are the gifts I would hope to bestow upon my child.

It does not matter to me that Clever Gretchen… is an old library book that found its way into a little shop and, with some pocket change, into my home. The price of something does not signify its worth. If only more people felt like this, secondhand book stores like that former pearl in Humansdorp might not have to suffer a similar fate, their books discarded to make room for sachets of milk and bulk cheeses.

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