Introduction to The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat
by Belle Gironda, Ph.D.
by Belle Gironda, Ph.D.
The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat is an autobiographical narrative which shakes up all the elements of a traditional fairy tale to construct a contemporary feminist tale out of words and pictures, fantasy and history. Cordelia Williams has photographed her teenage daughter Caitlin (Camilla in the story) since birth to create this magical art document of a young woman's coming of age.
The “myth” Williams has made is a vision quest which celebrates the potentially powerful bonds between generations of women and between women in friendship.
The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat shines a rare light on the mother/daughter relationship. It is a story for children and adults featuring a positive image of a family headed by a single mother. It also runs against the conventions of Western myth and fairy stories in that the relationships between the women in this story are not antagonistic or competitive.
Clearly myths dependent on the negation of the mother subject continue to dominate in our culture. The necessity of the mother for biological reproduction cannot be denied, but if she is continuously imaged as jealous, vengeful, dangerous, competitive or abandoning, the possibility for the modeling of positive empowering relationships between women is greatly reduced.
In The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat, the heroine, Camilla, discovers her own personal power through her love for her mother, through a series of supportive friendships with other young women and through her relationship with the creatures and the elemental powers of the natural world. The power of nature is particularly embodied in her relationship with the Fairy Cat (who also symbolizes the psychic link between mother and daughter.)
In a sense, Camilla's mother becomes her daughter when Camilla performs the ultimate act of love, risking her own life to save her mother from the deceptive Predatory Spider.
Camilla's coming of age does not involve an abandonment or a violent break with her mother or a 'rescuing' by a male hero-figure. Instead, Camilla moves from the mother's enveloping presence which involves subordination and rebellion into one of reciprocity, mutual support and respect.
In the process she is empowered. When she meets the Predatory Spider, in confrontation he asks, “Who do you think you are?" "I am a fairy of undisclosed powers.” Camilla says with confidence. For young women, in life and in literature, the ability to answer the question, “Who am I?” with a positive affirmation of self and personal power is too rare. Key to Camilla's success is the support she receives from the Fairy Queen. Also important are a series of positive encounters she has with female friends along the way, and the visions she has of her mother and grandmother encouraging and commending her. This is an important departure from a history of fairy tales in which women frequently appear as obstacles to each other.
The images of The Extraordinary Adventure of Camilla and the Fairy Cat move back and forth between realistic black and white photographs to fantastical color enhanced and painted-on pictures: just as Camilla, the child of a fairy and a mortal poet (her father died tragically when she was a baby, we are told) is able to traverse “the Fairy World” and the "Real World.” There is an intense celebratory sensuality about many of the pictures which are, both illustrations of a fairy story and simultaneously a rare documentation of a young girl's growth from childhood to young adulthood.
The water photographs, which illustrate Camilla's journey down the river of Hope to rescue her mother, are particularly suggestive of the rites of passage. Camilla, a young woman of the edge of adolescence, appears in a series of images, sometimes floating dreamily on her back with her eyes closed, sometimes completely submerged, tossed by turbulence, and sometimes swimming with power and grace toward the apparent surface. In the text for this section of the book, Camilla has visions and hears the voices of family members as she ponders questions of danger, responsibility and identity.
The picture of the mother and daughter reunion, near the end of the book, is a terrific twist on the madonna images of hundreds of years of art history. Because of the elegant painterly quality of the hand-painted photography, and the stately pose and referential angle and expression of Camilla's Renaissance face, one can't help but think of the classic madonnas of the 16th century. Yet instead of a blandly adoring mother cradling the (always boy) child, we have two women holding each other in an adoring and reciprocal embrace. It seems a bold gesture towards the rethinking of the mother/daughter relationship.