I seem determined lately to cover books I discovered in the sixth grade. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, while better as a single volume, was originally marketed—still is—as a series of four books for young adults. I chose the fourth and final book in the series, Talking to Dragons, as the subject of a book report1. It was entertaining, I suppose, but surprisingly typical—even formulaic: young man quests with sort, meets beautiful girl, and saves kingdom. One got the distinct impression, however, that a deep, satirical vein ran throughout, though I was perhaps unable to fully appreciate it at the time.
I am unable to remember if I discovered the existence of the four-part series first, or if my father already had it. In any case, my first complete experience with the The Enchanted Forest Chronicles was the 1993 Guild America printing, which combined all four books into a single one, and made it feel much more like a proper novel. It was also at that point I realized just how much Wrede was satirizing the entire fantasy genre, creating both a simple storyline for young adult readers and a much more playful—occasionally contemptuous—story for wizened veterans of the fantasy genre. Is it Tolkien? Not even close; as far as structure or quality goes, it’s honestly not even as good as Wrede’s other works, but it’s a delightful romp nonetheless.
It’s almost appropriate that I read Talking to Dragons first, since that was in fact the first book Wrede for the series (1985), but then heavily revised it when she wrote the other three as prequels. It’s no wonder, then, that the final book is so different in structure and point-of-view.
The basic plot of the series follows Princess Cimorene, who is a very non-traditional princess (read: feminist) in a canonically Grimm universe. She runs away from home and becomes the voluntary captive princess of the dragon Kazul. Over the course of the series, and she meets and weds Mendanbar, the young King of the Enchanted Forest. She learns to hate wizards, who are all pretty much evil; she does, however, befriend witches and magicians (who are totally different from wizards). There are all elves, dwarves, and any one of a number of creatues along the way. In addition, the books are packed with references to stock fairy tale constructs. One recognizes too many fairy tale characters and scenarios to enumerate, but clearly the series is fun, even if it is sometimes a bit stilted or repetitive.
If I had to level any criticism, it would be the punctuated equilibrium of Wrede’s characters. In the span of a given book, we might be treated to a sort of combative, witty reparté between two characters, and within only a chapter or so at the end, they decide they are madly in love and decide to wed; the mechanical aspects of the fairy tale, then, are apparently unimportant compared to making the characters interesting until they ultimately fulfill their circumscribed roles.
Being generous, then, I will posit that The Enchanted Forest Chronicles was always the shell of a traditional fantasy with traditional fantastic elements that was written in such a way as to make its very occurrence somehow unique and satirical; Wrede’s participation in—and simultaneous spoofing of—the conservative fantasy model, can be vexing, as the reader is never sure to what source to ascribe his or her reactions. Is it bad? Or bad on purpose? Is it fantasy, satire, or self-satirizing fantasy? Or is it just a fairy tale for cynical, modern readers?
There are constructions in this/these book(s) I haven’t seen done elsewhere; Wrede isn’t simply a hack with an annotated copy of Grimm and a word processor. She’s quite a good writer, and I would therefore ascribe any literary shortcomings to design rather than fault; I would even surmise that she had to keep herself from making a more intricate or nuanced plot into order to stay true to the twisted-fairy-tale angle that she aiming for 2.
While hardly an involved read, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is fun and inventive, and will appeal to those who—like me—hold a special place in their hearts for fairy tales. A recommend diversion, especially if you can find the all-in-one edition.