*First published in The Stake
Magical women have always drawn me to fairy tales. As a child, I was rabid fan of a tiny vinyl Cinderella recording at the library. I listened to that record so much, I wore down the grooves; if someone else managed to check it out in the narrow windows between my listenings, my search for an alternative was filled with disappointment and falling tears.
Later, I learned about fairy godmothers under different disguises. Babba Yagga lives in the old Russian fairytales. If you see her chicken footed house sprinting towards you, it spells disaster — but if you survive the encounter, she gives you precious gifts. Cailleach Bheur (Huge Old Woman), of Irish and Scottish origin, is the keeper of deer herds. Implore her for guidance and she will lead you to the deer that needs culling. If you don’t ask for her assistance, she’ll impede your path, jealously guarding her deer.
Fairytales are full of these fairy women, and the nature of the story depends on their fairy pedigree. Some help selflessly, asking for nothing in return. Others bestow gifts or aid but at a price, usually in trade for a task they need done.
Somewhere on that fairy godmother spectrum rests Old Mrs. Hempstock, the magical old woman in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. She’s introduced in an old fashioned farmhouse kitchen, apron heavy with daffodils that bathe the dark room in a golden light. She interrupts her granddaughter’s discussion with a little boy, asking him where she should place the vases around the room. They proceed to set each one just where the young boy chooses; he is the book’s nameless narrator, and we discover that it’s the first time in his life an adult has asked for his opinion and taken it seriously.
The old woman rewards the little boy with porridge and honeycomb afterwards: when reprimanded by her daughter, Ginnie Hempstock, for feeding him honey that will rot his teeth, she replies:
“I’ll have a word with wigglers in his mouth,” she said. “Get them to leave his teeth alone.”
“You can’t just boss bacteria around like that,” said the younger Mrs. Hempstock. “They don’t like it.”
“Stuff and silliness,” said the old lady. “You leave wigglers alone and they’ll be carrying on like anything. Show them who’s boss and they can’t do enough for you. You’ve tasted my cheese… I’ve won medals for my cheese. Medals.”
Old Mrs. Hempstock rules the roost as any fairy godmother worth her salt would: With a delicate balance between respect for others and showing them what’s what. As the story continues, she becomes a safe haven in the narrator’s increasingly terrifying world. Her daughter, Ginnie and her granddaughter Lettie are much the same, providing relief and a sane outlook for a little boy desperately in need of compassion and care.
There is another fairy godmother in this story, the chaotic shadow-side of the Hempstock women. This fairy godmother gives people whatever they want. One night, the little boy wakes up choking on money, nearly suffocating before he claws the shilling out of his throat. Soon money is appearing everywhere — rolled up in purses and hiding under mattresses — and neighbors begin to fight. Each accuses the other of doing dark and dirty deeds for the money, and pandemonium breaks out in the neighborhood.
At the center of this chaos is the shadow fairy godmother, Ursula Monkton, a magical being from another world. Humans are her pets, and she lavishes them with their deepest desires regardless of the consequences.
Lettie Hempstock must confront Ursula and end the chaos. Eleven year old with freckles and red-brown hair, she has been the little boy’s companion. Unlike her grandmother, she is not a fairy godmother yet: she is a maiden still. As the end of the story nears, the three Hempstock women come together, their identities blurring until the little boy cannot perceive who is who. Maiden, mother and crone lose their boundaries and each flows into the other.
Are the three women one, or distinct unto themselves? Gaiman takes the three-in-one concept of the Christian Trinity and uses it to breathe life back into another ancient figure: the Triple Goddess. We know her as the ancient Greek Hecate, the crossroads goddess with three faces, connected with night, magic and raising the dead. We also know her as the Fates: three women who spin, measure and cut the length of our lives.
Just like her fairy godmother predecessors, old Mrs. Hempstock’s character draws deep on myths and legends. She and her family tie our modern age to an older time. Besides Gaiman’s craftsmanship, his clear gripping prose and the tight plot, he has given us something more.
He’s left us with a hope that these heroic magical women might still be present, in our very own neighborhoods, maybe even living next door. The Ocean at the End of the Lane brings magic to our own mundane world: surrounded by these women, anything is possible. A fairy godmother–even Hecate–could be the lady with crazy hair and a sweet smile who is out walking her dogs. She could be a large woman, skimming by in fluttering layers of clothing and scarves, picking up fruit at the grocery store, jewelry flashing from all angles.
It’s impossible to rule anyone out.