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Pelzmantel by K.A. Laity

01/03/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: Immanion Press. 261 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP 11.99 (UK), $20.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-904853-74-9.

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Fairy tales and folk lore are a good source of material for writers of all kinds. Bram Stoker drew on the tales extant in the Carpathian Mountains along with the Greek idea of an incubus to create his story of Dracula. At the same time, he mixed in the Victorian mores regarding sexuality to provide a tale that has inspired writers ever since.

In the days before the general populace was literate, stories were memorised and passed from fireside to fireside. The men preferred the tales of daring-do, the sagas of heroes winning against impossible odds, a tradition that has continued in the quest fantasies of such as David Gemmell and Stan Nichols. These tales released the adrenaline of the listener and inspired them to dream of such feats of their own. To become the hero of one of these epics was the aim of many a young warrior. Women, however, had their own tales. These were what have largely become disguised as fairy tales. They were teaching stories, lore passed on down the female line, many of which were either warnings about the real world, or useful information that could be passed down the female line without the men being aware of the real purpose of the fireside stories.

Most of K.A. Laity’s book, ‘Pelzmantel’, is the re-telling of a story that has appeared in various forms as a European folk tale for many centuries. As a result, many of the elements will be familiar to the widely-read. The setting is approximately mediaeval Europe - certainly familiar countries and places are mentioned. This land is one that rulership passes down the female line, one where it can only prosper if a queen is on the throne. The narrator is Nanna, an old woman who long ago was captured in a raid on Ireland and brought to this country as a slave. For many generations, she has been the nanny to queens. The current queen and her husband have an ideal marriage except for the lack of an heir. When a kinsman of Nanna arrives, he whispers that she can change that. The queen insists that Nanna helps her have a child despite being warned of the danger. When the queen dies in childbirth, the grieving husband does not wish ever to see his daughter. Nanna raises the child, doing her best to instil knowledge and wisdom.

The title comes from the fact that later, when the princess, Hallgerd, is forced to flee into exile, she has with her a coat made from samples of fur from many animals. She calls herself Pelzmantel and disguised, works in the kitchen of a neighbouring prince. Nanna accompanies her in the guise of a fox.

As the re-telling of an extant tale, it is well done and the result is a charming confection. It is unfortunate that it is just that as it does not add any new twists or insights into the events or the reasons why the story was imagined in the first place. Neither is it a modern re-working of the tale indicating the continued relevance of such material.

It may be that I will be accused of being a nit-picker, but K.A. Laity is described as a teacher of mediaeval literature. As such, I would expect her to have knowledge about the period in which she has set the story. I find it amazing then that her characters are dining on potatoes, a luxury that did not appear in Europe until the Tudor period.

This volume also contains three very short stories. ‘Moggie’ is almost a tale of revenge for the harsh treatment of the illiterate narrator as well as being an argument for the truism that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

‘Walpurgisnacht’ is a contemporary warning that sometimes it is a good idea to heed the strictures of adults as sometimes they really do know best.

‘Darkest Day’ has the feel of a Northern European myth, perhaps Finnish or Russian, which not only looks at the ignorance of uneducated villagers but also is the story of the cunning of a woman sent to be a sacrifice to ensure the sun returns after mid-winter night.

These three stories do have something to add to concept of female magic and witchcraft. It would have been nice if ‘Pelzmantel’ had done the same.

Pauline Morgan

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