If you’ve ever read an original folktale (and not the sanitized Disney adaptations), you can likely relate to the feeling of being unsettled and uneasy. While often conveying a culturally and time-specific moral, those tales lacked the neat bows and happy endings to which we’re now accustomed.
But it’s that feeling — the darker side of classic stories — that first inspired author Leigh Bardugo.
Bardugo, the YA powerhouse behind the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, has just added the next chapter to her beloved Grishaverse: a collection of folktales, set within her fictional world, called The Language of Thorns.
“You don’t have to have ever read any of my other books to pick it up,” Bardugo told MashReads. “They’re stories my characters would’ve heard, they’re not about the characters. Though for my readers, there’s a lot to discover in the worlds and countries in the Grisha.”
The story in the collection that inspired the book, and that debuted on Tor.com in 2012, is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, now told in Bardugo’s fictional country of Ravka. This haunting adaptation originated from Bardugo’s childhood unease with the original folktale.
“I was so disturbed, not by the terrible witch, but by the fact that they went back to their father at the end of the tale,” Bardugo says of Hansel and Gretel. “That has always bothered me so deeply, even as a kid. There seemed to be some danger left in that story.”
Who wouldn’t be disturbed by children returning to a situation where they were starving and neglected? While these facts are often ignored or downplayed in modern adaptations, they’re highlighted in Bardugo’s collection.
Not shying away from painful truths is a theme that runs throughout The Language of Thorn. In fact, that idea is what inspired the title “The Language of Thorns” itself. As Bardugo explained:
We were playing with ideas of the woods as this place of transgression and the idea of a path, and we were thinking too of what the cover might look like. And I was working on [‘Ayama and the Thorn Wood, the first story in the book] at the same time as we were having these discussions… when Ayama enters the Thorn Wood she sees all of these beautiful things. And I think in fantasy, there’s this element of wish-fulfillment that speaks to that. You want to be transported to a place that is more beautiful, more spectacular, more magical than what we know. But I think the best fantasy is grounded in reality, it shows you the cost of those things. And similarly when Ayama emerges from the Thorn Wood, the reason she knows it’s all true is because of the scratches that the thorns left behind on her skin. So that for me was the point of departure for coming up with the title for the collection. Because the whole idea is the truth in the tale, and so the language of thorns.
Bardugo herself is a lifelong fan of folklore and mythology, and has a deep understanding of what those original folktales were meant to accomplish.
“The stories we consume and the stories that make it through years and years of retelling really say something about the culture.”
“I was really thinking about how much these stories say about us. The stories we consume and the stories that make it through years and years of retelling really say something about the culture, and about the way we look at adventure, and the way we look at what men and women should have access to, the way we think a particular crime should be punished, what certain crimes are.”
Folktales often originated to teach a specific moral or cultural norm, or as warnings. Bardugo gave the example of the Wicked Stepmother trope: “All these stories about stepmothers doing bad things to their stepkids is because women died in childbirth very frequently, and so other women frequently raised their kids. This was meant to be a warning, a prohibition, against not treating kids who weren’t your blood well. So it speaks to this kind of anxiety.”
But not all of these morals are so positive, Bardugo explains.
“There are other things that grew out of less genuine places, less understandable places, in terms of how women are viewed in culture, how young girls are viewed in culture.”
That’s why, when reading those folktales, and then when writing her own stories, Bardugo thought about the source of each tale: the teller.
“It’s always interesting to ask about the teller: the teller of the tale and the narrator of the tale, and that’s something I tried to play with in Language of Thorns. There’s different cultural sensibilities, and potentially different moralities, whether it’s towards magic, towards beauty, towards virtue, that exists for each culture that these are coming from.”
As Bardugo explains, the central theme of the collection always returns to the question of what’s the truth in the tale: “What are you taking away from the story, what is the story trying to make you take away from it?”
The challenge, and often the fun, for Bardugo comes from having a readership that is so aware of folktales and their tropes.
“It’s always interesting to ask about the teller: the teller of the tale and the narrator of the tale, and that’s something I tried to play with in ‘Language of Thorns.'”
“When you enter that fairytelling voice, you’re instantly in conversation with all the stories that somebody already knows. There’s an amount of play that’s happening with expectation that I think is part of the fun of writing a new fairytale.”
While some of the stories are clearly based on existing folktales, Bardugo says that other stories in The Language of Thorns are “wholly original.”
But no matter their source, each story attempts to give a moral to the readers — both the fictional ones in the Grishaverse who would have heard these stories and the real ones who buy Bardugo’s book — as well as subvert those tropes we know from classic folktales. In Bardugo’s collection, those who seem innocent are shown to be guilty, one-dimensional characters become more complicated, and mothers who once were absent are given presence and power.
Of course, no discussion of this collection is complete without mention of the beautiful and haunting illustrations by Sarah Kipin, which grow in the margins of each story until they’ve taken over the pages in a closing mural for each.
Bardugo credits her editor Erin Stein and her publishers’ art director Natalie Sousa for having this idea, as well as Kipin’s amazing artistic talents.
“[Sarah] has this tremendous facility with a limited palette, I think that she hits on powerful images really quickly. I also think that she got better and better… the illustrations became more and more elaborate and exquisite as she went. The last story we did was ‘When Water Sang Fire,’ the mermaid story. It’s the longest of the pieces and the most challenging in terms of what we wanted to do with it visually, and I felt like she accomplished something really extraordinary.”
And for Bardugo, those visuals — both the illustrations and the descriptions in her writing — are key to a crafting a powerful folktale.
“There are certain stories that just stuck with me [from childhood], I think because they were so visually powerful.”
For Bardugo, the visuals and story that have stayed with her the most come from The Princess and the Pea (which is sadly not incorporated in her collection).
“I was obsessed with the imagery of that story growing up: the 20 feather beds on top of the 20 mattresses, and when she arrives at the door the water is streaming in through the heels of her shoes and out through the toes. And at the end of the story, I remember them saying they put the pea in a museum and you can still see it to this day. As I kid I was like, ‘I need to go to that museum and see the pea!’ it seemed so real to me.”
That feeling of the magical made real is what drew Bardugo to folktales, especially the darker ones, and what has kept her enthralled for so long.
“I feel like people who read science fiction and fantasy never lose that [feeling]. We never lose that feeling of entering some kind of shadowy place and thinking that a talking stag is going to appear. We’re still waiting for that moment.”
The Language of Thorns is currently on sale.