Friday, May 11, 2012

Story of the Week: The Castle of Ashes

The Enchantress (1907),
Frederick Stuart Church
Alexandra Seidel's "The Castle of Ashes," in the Spring 2012 issue of The Red Penny Papers, is a fairy tale in the old tradition told to you, the reader, by a wise and charming narrator. It's about a princess and her father the king in a time long past when the world was different. As the narrator explains:

Once, the world was a wilder place. Spirits and ghosts and whatnot roamed freely, and for the most part, they could do as they pleased. No, not today. Things changed, I know they did, but that is not what I’m trying to tell you.

When I say the story is a traditional fairy tale, I mean it doesn't pull any punches. There's a threat of incest and of course some bloody violence. The tale is set in a small town nestled near some mountains and jungle, civilization abutting the wild. There is a tower in the village which still stands and looks over the town and jungle. The narrator says the "tower was once called the Tower of Mists because you could see into the mists from there; dark, thick or curling, you could watch as they formed and reformed themselves over the jungle’s sky-reaching leaves." These mists once had magical qualities but are now faint echoes of their past glory, "void of color and spell." The narrator is very much a character in the story and frequently chides the listener to pay attention and not get all indignant about the way things used to be. The narrator says "I may be a relic, the old king used to call me that as well, but there is wisdom in history, and who better to tell you about history than its most infamous relic?"

The protagonist is Liqin, a beautiful princess whose "skin was fair as mother of pearl, and her black hair was long and straight and felt just like silk." Her father the king loves Liqin very much, so much that he can't stand to part with her and rues the day when he will have to give her away in marriage. The narrator says that "the king’s heart had some sort of twist in it, something truly sinister," which leads him to decide to keep his daughter at home by marrying her himself. Liqin grieves as preparations for the marriage proceed. The princess is not a fool and "had seen her father look at her, and she knew what this marriage would mean."

One day, Liqin is in the garden adjoining the king's house, crying over her fate. The garden is near the jungle. A thick mist rises from the jungle, enters the garden and curls around Liqin. The mist holds the terrified girl in its grip and then transforms into a tiger but not just any tiger.

His fur was not just orange and black, it was searing iron and mountain core; his eyes were two furnaces and they burned hot, even as Liqin looked into them. His tongue ranged from sensual and soft to demandingly thirsty and back again, and his teeth and claws were so undeniably the manifestation of death that even death’s priests would have crumbled before them to beg for mercy.

The tiger questions Liqin about her sorrow and tells her, in a way, what she must do. Liqin must choose between tears or claws and teeth. She must decide if she is wild and untamed like the tiger.

In "The Castle of Ashes," Seidel succeeds in bringing story and storyteller alive. The narrator says this is a story about how "you take your fear and you throw it on a high pyre and you light that pyre and watch it burn to nothing." On the surface, that's certainly true, but "The Castle of Ashes" also tells us something about love gone wrong and twisted, about the separation of parent and child, and about storytelling, how the mythic past is as relevant today as ever, how the magic of the past lives on in these tales. Is the narrator reliable? She rules the telling as an absolute monarch, choosing the details, choosing how to color her characters. "Others might have seen [events] differently," the narrator admits, "might have described the king as noble, but not I." She admits that stories become distorted but insists that there is wisdom in the past.

To learn more about Alexandra Seidel and her writing, check out her blog at

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