Book Title: When Fairyland Lost Its Magic

Author: Bijal Vachharajani

Illustrator: Rajiv Eipe

Publisher: HarperCollins (hardback, INR 499)

Reviewed by: Anil Menon

When Fairyland Lost Its Magic

The use of fairy tales to illustrate ecological lessons is a relatively new sub-genre of climate fiction. Bijal Vachharajani’s little book (illustrated by Rajiv Eipe), which may be classified as belonging to this category, is an enjoyable guilt trip. Humans are so rotten that we have even begun to infect Fairyland with our problems!

This is an idea-centric work of fiction, and the writing has that functional straight-forward quality associated with many such works. There is a poem-spouting reindeer, but it limits itself to rhymed verses and avoids pissing off Wren & Martin’s grammar book. Climate fiction has a complicated relationship with the idea of nature as a resource, but in this book, magic is very much a natural resource of Fairyland. 

Magic is a peculiar thing. In our world, magic is how things change in unexpected ways. If your neighbour turns into a compassionate, poetry-reading, garbage-sorting individual, you’d know in an instant Gandalf must have come visiting. In Fairyland, the characters realise their world is running out of magic when things stop behaving as expected. There’s a shortage of stalker princes, kingdoms have run out of snow, wolves have no more forests to lurk in, and so on. The problem sure smells like someone’s fault. But whose? 

As AK Ramanujan pointed out in an influential essay, fairy tales are karmic landscapes. Characters are lumped with seemingly-random afflictions or gifts, and depending on how they deal with their good or bad situations, they end up either eating dinner or being dinner. That’s what makes them so satisfactory for kids; they know if something bad happens, deservin’ has everything to do with it. 

But this book has a curious twist. Fairyland, it turns out, is not a closed karmic system. Its denizens are not to blame for what is happening. Though an interesting move by the author, I felt this led to an unsatisfactory conclusion. Isn’t that the human response to climate change after all? It is the fault of colonialism. Of industrialists. The Global South. In a non-karmic system, we need scapegoats to assume the blame, and the novel locates Fairyland’s scapegoat in the mundane world, not the behaviour of its denizens. 

One of Rajiv Eipe’s illustrations — terrific as always — shows all manner of beings in Fairyland (men, women, animals, and everything around and in between) uniting to change things. Regrettably, however, the stories tend to reflect the sort of woke rewriting that Disney has ventured into recently. To wit, there are no positive male characters. This might be a great strategy for generating likes on social media, but is a not-so-great strategy for publishers. Little boys do read fairy tales after all, and a countable handful even go on to write great ones. A story which devalues all that is labelled masculine behaviour in a fairy tale while excusing all that is labelled feminine is a story that works against its imagined good intentions. Of course, it’s easy (and not entirely inaccurate) to argue that such a story is only devaluing toxic masculinity. In lieu of avoiding an over-large rebuttal, I will simply point to the difference in the inter-gender representations in Wonder Woman (the first movie, not the execrable second one) versus She-Hulk. Both have strong” female leads, but the first shows an inclusive fight against evil, one that involves men and women working together in good faith and love and common cause, while the latter takes a more scorched-earth approach. Why should Prince Charming not be as concerned about Fairyland as Cinderella or Snow White? How come his curly locks aren’t falling out because of the lousy tanker water? Why doesn’t he get cancer from his asbestos-lined dragon-fighting armour? Why is he/him the representation of climate denial? 

This is an engaging, well-written book in all other ways. Literature has taken a moral turn in the last few decades, and I suppose authors must adjust with the times. The crooked timber that built Fairyland may have to be straightened, perhaps with irony, even in stories that are about restoring Fairyland. 

About the Reviewer

Anil Menon is the chief editor of The Bombay Literary Magazine. His books include The Coincidence Plot (Simon & Schuster, 2023), The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun: Stories (Hachette, 2022), Half of What I Say (Bloomsbury, 2015, shortlisted for the 2016 Hindu Literary Prize), and The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan, 2009, shortlisted for the 2009 Crossword Prize and the Carl Baxter Society’s Parallax Award).