Two Fables by Roald Dahl: B

Two_fables_coverFrom the front flap:
Roald Dahl is recognized as a master in two quite different fields: the short story and the novel for children. In these two new fables, Dahl has once again written startlingly original stories that, while owing something to the clarity and verve of his writing for children, are firmly intended for adults. In “The Princess and the Poacher,” the beastially ugly Hengist is granted a dark wish, but cannot bring himself to fulfill it. In “Princess Mammalia,” Mammalia is driven to attempt murder when her beauty dazzles every man in the kingdom except the one who has what she truly wants.

Deftly told, these pared-down tales explore the intertwinings of love and power, beauty and desire.

Two Fables contains two odd short stories that share some common themes and some bizarre, Rorschach-y illustrations by Graham Dean.

In “The Princess and the Poacher,” Hengist, an unfortunately ugly young man, is quite naturally interested in maidens fair but, as Dahl aptly puts it, “no maidens, fair or otherwise, were interested in Hengist.” In an attempt to distract himself from the ladies he can’t have, he takes to solitary walks in the woods and discovers a talent for stealth that ultimately leads to a life of crime as a poacher. One day, seeking a challenge, he ventures into the king’s woods and ends up saving the princess from being gored by a boar.

In gratitude, the king makes a proclamation that Hengist is free to ravish any female in the land. But now that all women are powerless to resist him, Hengist suddenly finds that he doesn’t want any of them. Alone of all the males in the court, he treats the princess courteously and, in the end, wins her love, which was the king’s plan all along. I don’t really get why the king wanted his daughter to marry a poor, uneducated commoner like Hengist, since Dahl never spells it out, but perhaps it’s a political maneuver to avoid having a scheming son-in-law in his household. This seems likely, given the outcome of the second tale.

In “Princess Mammalia,” the titular princess awakes on the morning of her seventeenth birthday to discover she has become a dazzling beauty. She promptly begins exercising her power over men, growing contemptuous of their obedience. Like Hengist, once members of the opposite sex become powerless to resist her, Mammalia loses interest. Tiring of humiliating her admirers, she soon sets her sights on usurping her father’s throne, but the king, like his peer in the first story, is a clever fellow and devises a way to test his daughter’s loyalty. This story’s a little more concise than the first, with a more definite ending, so I liked it a bit better for that.

In the end, this is an extremely quick read that, as the flap promises, delivers an intriguing hybrid of Dahl’s fairy tale style and more adult subject matter. I’d never read anything by Dahl intended for a grown-up audience before, and it was an interesting experience. Like any fable ought, these stories also deliver a clear (though sexually tinged) moral: irresistibility (whether mandated by law or achieved through beauty) is seldom as enjoyable as daydreams might suggest.

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