***Spoilers for the short story “What the Earth Bore” by Mary Rajotte, ahead!
Death and decay are the last elements I would associate with any form of good–or at least, when I was a child, reading fairy tales and hoping the heroines would save the day or defeat the scary monster.
As an adult looking back, I can’t help but smile and shake my head because I know today that there are more shades of grey than there are black and white in the world; the circumstances and individuals I unconsciously judged throughout my life are often more complex than I originally assumed.
Sometimes, we create villains and villainesses because we simply do not understand them, and it’s easier to constrict the image we have of others into a box in our heads to validate the narratives that comfort us about their differences from us; their otherness, if you will. It’s a heartbreaking truth of life: those we consider villains were never evil nor had any intention of evil in their hearts–until we forced them to be such.
In Grimm & Dread: A Crow’s Twist on Classic Tales, a short story anthology collection edited by Cassandra L. Thompson, with contributions by Lucas Mann, we follow the fairy tale retellings of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales through a gothic lens.
One of my favorite stories from the collection was “What the Earth Bore” by Mary Rajotte, a Sleeping Beauty retelling, especially because of its opening line: “The way you gaze at me with such adoring intensity makes me believe you could love even my darkest side.”
Sleeping Beauty–known as Rosamund–in this story, uses a “magical glamour” to hide her true form from her beloved, Edmund. That true form is one that was born from death and decay, where everything she touches spoils and turns to rot; spiderwebs are woven into her hair to add the illusion of a lustrous sheen while crushed iridescent insects and fruits add color to her eyes and lips. To Rosamund, she believed she couldn’t truly be loved if she wasn’t beautiful.
To her dismay and heartbreak, the villagers who raised Edmund could feel the palpability of her glamorous lies, and sought to destroy and banish her for tricking Edmund as well as creating an aura of ill omen around her–so expose her they did. Deep into the forest, they chased her, brutally stripped her of the glamour, and presented her to Edmund–who found her even more beautiful in her true form, and found that her ability to heal the wounds afflicted on him by the villagers out of spite for his ignorance was a miracle rather than a blasphemous event.
It’s safe to say I raged when I read the villagers killed Edmund because he would accept Rosamund as she was rather than their definition of a beautiful woman. As a result, Rosamund shed the last of the glamour on herself and drew the magic of death and decay she was born with to kill every villager because all she wanted was to live a quiet life with her beloved.
In tales like this, I find the true villain to be intangible: it’s the circumstance of misunderstanding and misguided fear that can create evil without meaning, or intentionally fit a narrative that makes a person feel the most comfortable and validate a misconstrued perspective.
Rosamund only looked like a villainess to the villagers, but she was never one nor wanted to be one until they pushed her into the dark.