Jay Williams's Petronella, originally published in 1973 in Parents magazine, is a princess tale with a twist. Royal-born Petronella, kind, brave and resourceful, goes in search of her prince and finds an enchanter instead. Shades of Parzival and Baba Yaga lore find their way into the story (e.g., her act of kindness releases an old man from a curse; enchanted everyday objects help her make her getaway). Margaret Organ-Kean's opening portraits of the royal family and the pristine castle in which they live are standouts, but the princess herself and her suitors appear to be rather homely.
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When Jay Williams published Petronella in 1973, it was hailed (or derided) as a "feminist fairy tale." Seen against the crystalline conventions of the traditional fairy tale, with its imprisoned princess waiting passively for rescue by an active male hero, Williams' energetic, resourceful Princess Petronella, who set herself against a dangerous (male) enchanter in a battle to free a captive prince, was positively radical. The book was embraced by the women's movement and widely anthologized, and remains a sentimental favorite among may women who have left behind the radical feminism of their youths to become practicing mothers, breadwinners, and careerists.
But even while the term "feminism" has become associated with the movement's most radical factions, many of the goals of the '60s and '70s feminism have been widely accepted throughout society. Hardly anyone seriously questions the notion of equality between the sexes, although practice still falls far short of theory in many areas. Girls are widely encouragedin school, at home, and through the mass mediato excel in sports and education, to establish fulfilling careers for themselves, and to demand equality in their relationships with men.
Petronella, A Newly Illustrated Edition, therefore breaks no new boundaries in gender relations, but is all the more relevant because of it. Where the assertive teenaged princess may once have been considered too dangerous for many young readers, she has become, with the passage of time and societal change, an appropriate mainstream role-model for girls from 8 to 12and an enjoyable read for their young male counterparts as well.
Margaret Organ-Kean's sparkling new illustrations do much to bring Petronella up-to-date for a new generation of readers. Both Petronella and her foil, the mysterious enchanter Albion, look like they could star in the latest pop videominus the blatant sexuality. Neither are conventionally beautiful individuals, but both are appealingly realistic and suffused with authentic personalities. And therein is another virtue of Petronella, A Newly Illustrated Edition: that romantic heroes and heroines can look at lot like the high-school seniors down the street.
Organ-Kean, who is well known in the fantasy community as an illustrator of games such as the Magic: the Gathering and Middle Earth: The Wizards series, uses a vivid, detailed style that lends considerable credibility to the story's fantastic, shape-changing enchantmentssuch as, when Albion turns himself into a salmon so that he can pursue Petronella across a lake that she has magically brought into being. But Organ-Kean's artistry is just as manifest in scenes where no enchantments appear. A slightly homely Petronella, eye-to-eye with an furious hawk, and singing to it to calm it down, is an extraordinary depiction of inner beauty making itself manifest. And Organ-Kean clearly enjoys painting horses. They appear on several pages, looking supremely muscular and vital.
Likewise, the story of Petronella has also lost none of its vitality in the 27 years since it was published. Its plot twists remain surprising yet believable, and its characters are still delightfully eccentric. The message may have lost its radical edge, but that is through no fault of the storyteller: indeed, it is indicative of positive societal change that the story is more broadly acceptable now than it was in 1973. And thanks to Organ-Kean's stunning new illustrations, Petronella may again become a favorite of young girls with dreams.