the Little Red Reviewer

The Grass-Cutting Sword by Catherynne M. Valente

Posted on: April 9, 2019

The Grass-Cutting Sword, by Catherynne M. Valente

published in 2006

where I got it: purchased used

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Before a girl circumnavigated fairyland, before John fell in love with Hagia,  before six super- heroines discussed their stories in the afterlife, and long before Space Opera, Catherynne Valente was taking the poetry and dreamyness of folklore and turning it inside out to show you the shiny bits you hadn’t known were there.

 

Valente’s novella, The Grass-Cutting Sword, was published in 2006, and if you come across a copy in some used bookstore somewhere, BUY IT.  (or even better, find a copy of Myths of Origin, which includes even more of Valente’s early work!) Especially if you like folklore. Especially if you like beautiful / weird / strange writing. If you enjoy C.S.E Cooney or Benjanun Sriduangkaew, you’ll love this.

 

In the story notes in Myths of Origin, Valente describes The Grass-Cutting Sword as “probably the most textually experimental and angriest” of her work. Yes, it is very experimental! But none of the characters seem overly angry. Driven? Absolutely. Tragic? That too.  Oh, and  as with all good fairy tales, there is a dragon and there is a sword.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is a retelling of the Japanese folktale of how the storm god Susanoo was banished from heaven by his sister Ama-Terasu. Instead of viewing it as a banishment, he takes the opportunity to seek his mother in her underground realm.  Recognized as a god by a worshipful man and woman, he undertakes the quest to save their recently abducted youngest daughter from an eight-headed serpent which has eaten the other seven daughters.

 

If he succeeds in the quest he has undertaken, the parents have promised him he can marry their youngest daughter as soon as he rescues her. Her parents say she is the most beautiful girl in the world, fit for an Emperor! And Susanoo wouldn’t be so insulting as to disagree, now would he?

 

The narrative flips back and forth between Susanoo’s point of view, and the serpent’s point of view.  Susanoo doesn’t mind hunting down the serpent, he’s not quite sure what else (other than look for the entrance to his mother’s realm) he’s supposed to do on Earth anyways.

 

 

As he travels the countryside looking for signs of the serpent, he tells the reader the story of creation – how his parents lived on an island surrounded by jellyfish, how his mother created the islands of Japan, how her fiery child was the last she would give birth to. Susanoo tells of his own creation, and that of his sister Ama-Terasu and his brother Tsuki-Yomi.

The chapter’s told from the serpent’s point of view have the chapter headings “first head”, “second head”, “third head”, etc.  The serpent stole the first daughter. And as it took the next few sisters, the sisters realized that this was a way all eight of them could be together, forever.  Did the serpent steal/eat them, or did it free them and give them new life? Valente takes some major writing risks in these chapters, more on that in a little bit.  Is the serpent an evil monster? Is it a victim (of the sisters and then of Susanoo?)? Is it a tragic creature who simply doesn’t want to be alone?

 

Susanoo comes across some monks, who he forces to help him. In their shrine, he sees carved images of himself. In these images, Susanoo is doing some of the things that he’s doing right now – he’s hunting a serpent, he’s helping humans, he’s searching for his mother’s realm.  Having a bit of a meta moment , he asks the monks if the images reflect events that have already occurred, and they say no, the images are their prayers. I got chills, and then laughed my head off. Of course these events have already occured! They occur again every time someone tells this story! The monks are able to tell Susanoo that the serpent has trees growing out of it’s back, and that it leaves a trail of blood wherever it goes. Find the trail of blood, find the serpent.

 

The serpent’s chapters are the stories of the sisters, who are now each physically intertwined with a different head of the serpent.  We learn that some of the sisters loved making the family’s famous fish eye soup, how a few of them couldn’t stand the stuff. How they all worried that in their mother’s eyes, all eight of them blended together, because how could she keep track of their differences?  The serpent treasures each sister, giving each one it’s whole self, everything it can. Are the sisters slowly destroying the serpent, are they the ones making the trees grow, which are slowly tearing their maybe savior apart from the inside? The sisters do see the serpent as their only way out of unwanted marriages, as the only way they can be together.  Or maybe the girls are all already dead, eaten alive, mouldering inside the serpent’s stomachs. Did the girls run away from home, or were they sacrificed to a local spirit? Who can know?

 

Remember I mentioned writing risks?  Valente has always written the way she wants. She’s always used sentence structure and rhythm to add shades and shadow that mere words alone are ill equipped to do. Told in multiple and  very distinct voices, not every dual voice paragraph in the Serpent’s chapter’s completely works and the prose does often border on purple, but when they do work, it’s incredible. From “First Head”:

 

Come with me/go into this/and I will show you the place where monster and marrow and maiden/and meat and bile and voices/pool. Come away from this man who is/neither old nor ugly/young nor beautiful, and I love you better than he/I will love you better than he.”

 

If you grimaced while reading that, Stop, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Skip this book. the experimental style probably just piss you off.

 

The serpent’s chapters aren’t all dual voice, but there is this fight going on, it’s as if the serpent thought keeping a gaggle of girls happy would be easy or something.  Who is stronger? A mythical and unkillable serpent, or a growing numbers of sisters who know what they want and how to get it? The battle rages inside the serpent, as trees grow from it’s back.   Susanoo almost seems an afterthought, in comparison to all this poetic rage and yearning.

 

But folk stories are told to get us to something, to explain something, to allow some other mythological event to occur.  Susanoo does indeed catch up to the serpent, and lures it to it’s death. And he does learn how to access his mother’s underground realm.

 

As the story ends, Susanoo gains what he set out for, and it doesn’t seem like any of the mortals got anything they really wanted. These though, are the stories of the gods, if the mortals want happy endings for themselves, they’ll have to write those stories themselves.

 

 

2 Responses to "The Grass-Cutting Sword by Catherynne M. Valente"

[…] Andrea at The little red reviewer […]

Like

This sounds AWESOME!!!
Also, I think the universe is making patterns again – Thumbs and I are currently replaying Okami (with the eight-headed dragon and Susanoo and Amaterasu) which makes me think I should get on this immediately! 😀

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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