Fashioning a Queer Fairy Tale: Review of The Dragon of Ynys by Minerva Cerridwen
The Dragon of Ynys. Minerva Cerridwen. Atthis Arts, 2022.
Fairy tales don’t age. They belong to an elusive other world in which time moves out of pace with our own. There, the woods still gobble up children and knights gallantly attend to their missions. Because of their entrenchment in our society, fairy tales are not likely candidates for elasticity or, especially, new additions. Instead, they seem to have always existed—if not written, then passed down through oral tradition. Despite constant retellings in popular media, the most familiar stories don’t budge too much; the stock framework of Little Red Riding Hood, for example, doesn’t shift in light of a sexy Hollywood adaptation. It’s impressive, then, for a modern fairy tale to emerge and offer something truly new, as Minerva Cerridwen does with her delightful novella The Dragon of Ynys.
Published by Atthis Arts Indie Publishing—a Detroit press that describes itself as socially responsible and respective of artistic voices—The Dragon of Ynys was originally published in 2018 but gets a second life in this 2020 edition after several revisions to the text. In the small village of Ynys, the knight Sir Violet must track down item after stolen item from the community. His search leads to a cave where the dragon Snap, in traditional dragon style, obsessively hoards items that catch his eye, particularly anything that glimmers. Sir Violet’s item-recovering visits to Snap’s cave become habitual over the years, but then something even more precious goes missing from Ynys: the baker’s wife, Juniper. The village baker, Holly, explains to Sir Violet that, the morning after she and her wife argued, Juniper was gone. After wrongly assuming Snap has taken to hoarding people, Sir Violet, along with Holly and Snap, go on a quest to search for Juniper beyond the village borders.
Marketed as an inclusive fairy tale for all ages, The Dragon of Ynys marries an old sensibility with the new. Staples of the genre are pervasive, particularly in the loosely medieval depiction of Ynys. In its world-building, the novella is rather average, but its characters are endearing despite their simplicity, shining through in their interactions with one another. Sir Violet and Snap’s conversations make for the most vibrant moments in the novella as Cerridwen develops their relationship from its contentious beginning to friends finding common ground. The Dragon of Ynys’s queer representation, however, takes the story and indeed the genre to new heights. In fact, queerness plays out in the novella not only through its depictions of characters across gender and sexuality spectra, but in its very premise: at the heart of the novella is an exploration of striving to do right by your loved ones as they come out. Like our own world, the village of Ynys includes well-meaning people who sometimes fall short. This is most palpable in the argument that sparks Juniper’s disappearance: when Holly’s cousin tells her that her daughter is transgender, the family disagrees on how to best move forward in light of societal prejudice. Although largely supportive, each has a different perspective that colors their response and sends frustration rippling through the family.
Throughout Sir Violet’s quest to find Juniper, he and his friends must learn to yield their egocentricity and make amends. In her afterword, Cerridwen says of The Dragon of Ynys, “the characters all learn that in order to be their best selves, they need to listen to others’ stories.” She states that she didn’t identify as genderqueer until after the novella’s original publication, adding that “the more we give ourselves the chance to explore who we are, the better our stories will become.” Indeed, the novella’s primary strength is not its depiction of a fairy tale world—amplification of queerness aside, its setting is standard and the plot rather formulaic—but rather in its reflection on its own form. As Cerridwen emphasizes in the afterword, The Dragon of Ynys is a story about stories, as wide-reaching instruments of positive and inclusive messages, and as a method of understanding one another and ourselves. Not the most traditional knight in armor, even Sir Violet, contemplates “how nice it would be if, once in a while, the bard would come to the pub and tell a story with characters like him.”
This self-reflective nature bolsters The Dragon of Yny’s larger premise as a fairy tale for all ages: for many adults, it will be their first encounter with a fairy tale that forthrightly depicts queer gender identities and sexual orientations; for children, it offers not only a charming narrative, but challenges them to consider others’ perspectives as it introduces them to identities under-represented in mainstream media. Like many fairy tales, The Dragon of Ynys is didactic, yet it never suffers from its messaging. Rather, Cerridwen banishes the fear-mongering tactics of classic fairy tales and cleverly blends our own lessons with Sir Violet and his friends’ quest: to listen to others’ stories, and to tell our own.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Amandine Faucheux in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following an ARB post offering the book for review. The author and editor were not previously acquainted, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. A review copy was arranged by ARB.