Journey to the House of Mystery
When I was about seven years old, I wrote my first poem. I drew from songs I knew at the time, so it ended up being fairly repetitive, but heartfelt. The teacher was so pleased with it that she took me to the principal’s office and asked if it could be published in the school newsletter. When I nodded, still getting over the shock of being in the principal’s office, I had no idea that this would be the beginning of a long journey for me. I continued to write poetry throughout elementary and high school, those painfully awkward years of being unable to express my thoughts, except in writing. Twenty years after writing my first poem, I published House of Mystery, a book of poetry about fairy tales I had grown up reading and watching.
People are always changing in fairy tales. A princess becomes a servant. A hedgehog turns into a prince. Girls turn into birds of paradise and boys turn into swans. Things are constantly changing into other things in a fairy tale. What you thought was a fox turns out to be a prince under a spell. You go for a walk to get some water and come back spitting out jewels (or frogs, depending on how nice you were to the witch at the well). A bone sings a song, a mirror speaks the truth, and a tree grows fruit that makes your nose grow long.
Fairy tales are also about journeys. A young woman runs away from home after her father declares he has to marry her, so she disguises herself and works as a servant in a neighbouring kingdom until she wins the heart of the prince. A young man leaves home to seek his fortune, encounters challenges and overcomes them (often with magical help), which eventually proves him worthy to marry a princess. A tiny child leaves home with her brothers and sisters, and comes across a giant’s house, where she tricks the giant into killing his own children instead of her family, steals all of his treasures, and runs away into safety with her siblings. In each story, the main character learns independence and fortitude in the face of adversity.
These fairy tale journeys and transformation drew me in early in my life. I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, watched all of the Disney movies, dressed up as a princess year after year for Halloween. But I was also aware of the darker, more painful elements of fairy tale transformations. I stumbled on a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” in my grandmother’s library when I was still very young, and was horrified that not only did the prince reject the mermaid in the end, but she also had her tongue cut out in the process of trying to make him love her. Surprisingly, I didn’t immediately reject the story and retreat back into the happier versions. Instead, I returned to it again and again, often in the throes of the many unrequited loves that plagued my adolescent years. I understood the pain of being unable to speak, of feeling as if I was walking on knives every time I was in public. Like the mermaid, I couldn’t see a way out of my predicament without a certain amount of pain involved.
Eventually, I went on my own journey: first, to university, and then to Australia on a student exchange trip. It was there that I learned I could do so many things I had previously been afraid of: start up a conversation with a stranger, live by myself, navigate an entire country on my own. I returned with a better sense of who I was, and it was then that I rediscovered fairy tales and was introduced to fairy tale scholarship.
Around that time, I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, her incredible collection of retold fairy tales, and then everything else by her that I could get my hands on. Something she said in one of her essays stuck: “I’m all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode” (“Notes from the Front Line”). This is the perfect metaphor for adapting old fairy tales. I don’t just want to pour new poems into old plots; I want the power of the new stories to transcend the old ones.
When I started writing poems for House of Mystery, I began with poems about mermaids. One of the first poems I wrote was “Letter of the Mermaid,” from the perspective of the little mermaid. It’s a letter to the prince, written before she decides to throw herself back into the ocean, where she believes she will be transformed into sea foam. I wanted to give her her voice back in the same way I felt like I had found mine through my writing.
One of my favourite mermaid myths is of the sirens, with their entrancing voices that lure sailors to their deaths. How powerful must their voices be to reach across oceans and change the course of a ship? Their voices enact change—in this case, causing death, but they remind us to use our voices for what we most want.
There’s one thing that’s easy to miss about Andersen’s story: the little mermaid finds her voice again. When she throws herself into the ocean, she doesn’t melt into sea foam. Instead, she is transformed into a spirit of the air, where she will wait to obtain a human soul. She discovers that she has a melodious, ethereal voice that no mortal can hear. Her story feels like a warning to use our voices while we can, to speak our desires, and be transformed by them.
House of Mystery is a part of my voice; it is a book about transformations. Mermaids, ogres, giants, witches, and wolves all feature inside the pages. Childhood memories blend with old stories. New wine is poured into old bottles. All is not what it seems. Look closer. Tell me what you find.
Courtney Bates-Hardy is a poet and the Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Her debut collection of poetry, House of Mystery, is now out from Kelp Queen Press, a new imprint of ChiZine Publications. She lives in Regina with her husband and their cat, Jean Grey.