Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: "Book of One Hundred Riddles of the Fairy Bellaria" by Charles Leland

"The Book of One Hundred Riddles of the Fairy Bellaria features the Scheherazade-like fairy goddess Bellaria: powerful and mysterious, courageous and clever, goddess of spring, flowers, love, fate, and death. In this story, Bellaria engages in a duel of wits with an evil king, a deathmatch of one hundred riddles. Each riddle is spoken as a rhyme and illustrated by an original engraving in the arts and crafts style. This book is a beautiful reintroduction to Leland and his pioneering design. " 
[From the book blurb]

Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital File Number: LC-DIG-cwpbh-01563)
Charles Godfrey Leland, 1853
Review by: Laura Lavelle

You probably don’t recognize the name of Charles Godfrey Leland. He was a moderately popular American writer in the 19th century who is finally getting some recognition for his devotion to preserving the Other. His life’s passion was studying the tales, rituals, and religions of underrepresented peoples. He started his career writing books on gypsies and Native Americans but spent his final days in Italy learning about Etruscan myths and lore. The Book of One Hundred Riddles came from his time spent with the Italian witch/fortune teller Maddalena.

Though it is not a strict retelling of any one particular story, the entire book pulls together familiar elements of fairy tales and mythology. Bellaria herself is modeled after an obscure Etruscan goddess known as Alpan, who is an unusual sort of Venus/Persephone hybrid. She is both a protector of graves and also associated with fertility and springtime. The images we can find of Alpan often depict her with wings, no clothing, and carrying a bouquet. By the nineteenth century, this goddess had become known in Tuscany as the fairy La Bellaria — or, “Beautiful One of the Air.”

Depiction of Alpan
Although Leland’s Bellaria is clearly presented as a wise fairy queen, she is largely a mysterious figure whose nature and past aren’t directly spelled out. The main plot centers on the evil King Ruggero challenging her to a duel to the death. But the King’s duel is a battle of wits, not weapons.  As a supporter of women’s rights, it’s no surprise that Leland would write his fairy queen as an empowering woman who earns the King’s rage as she continues answering each of his tricky riddles with ease. She is like an Italian Scheherazade, from One Thousand and One Nights (an undoubtedly intentional parallel considering the similarity of the books’ titles). As events progress, Leland takes every opportunity to weave pieces of Bellaria’s backstory throughout the narrative. In classic fairy tale fashion, there are several prophecies that do not come to fruition until the end.

Overall, The Book of One Hundred Riddles of the Fairy Bellaria is a masterpiece of poetry and prose, accompanied by drawings by the author himself.  Though elements have been pulled from several texts, it reads as an authentic fairy tale from start to finish.  This book was a breath of fresh air for any reader — a light story about a brilliant woman and her battle of wits against a tyrant.  And though we may never know why the author chose to end the book the way he did (sorry, but we won’t spoil it!), it certainly brought the text around in full circle and closed it off with a nice flourish.

More info about The Book of One Hundred Riddles of the Fairy Bellaria can be found at the University of Minnesota Press site HERE. (

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Laura Lavelle is a writer from Queens, New York, working in the genres of fantasy, horror, and science fiction with young and new adult themes.  She studied English at Queens College where she won a Silverstein-Peiser award in Fiction before graduating with her bachelor’s degree. However, when she’s not writing she can be found curled up with a book and a cat, hoping that something magical will happen.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Laura Lavelle,
    Thank you for such a kind review. I am sure that Bellaria is smiling down at you from high up in heavenly blue skies!
    Best wishes in he New Year