Filled with the marvellous

Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer
Arthur Rackham: illustration for Jack the Giant Killer

Fairy tales was the next genre to be discussed in the creative writing class, though I have to say that, following the precedent of ‘folktale’, I prefer the single-word form fairytale since fairies aren’t always the litmus test for this category. As usual this post will incorporate notes from the class with comments of my own.

Stith Thompson (editor of the Aarne–Thompson tale type index) suggested in The Folktale (1977) that fairytales are “of some length involving a succession of motifs or episodes”. Further defining features include “an unreal world without definite locality or definite characters and […] filled with the marvellous”. In this Never Never Land “humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses”.

So much for the traditional fairytale: does that still hold true for its modern descendants?

It seems likely. The late Angela Carter wrote in Fireworks (1974) that “the tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does. It interprets everyday experience through a system of imagery derived from subterranean areas behind everyday experience.” The psychological aspects of fairytale — its subconscious depths — are now consciously mined and incorporated into the narrative; Carter is not the only modern exponent of the genre to explore the fairytale’s power in “Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious”. Modern fairytales then both confirm and expand the territory of time-honoured contes des fées and Kinder- und Hausmärchen; out go the kingdoms and the princesses while in comes self-realisation and the kickass female, but the wonder remains.

The basics of the form include some or all of the following:

  • Once upon a time… It happens anytime, and anywhere
  • It celebrates wonder and innocence by making it possible for the simpleton or underdog to achieve fame, happiness and riches against the odds
  • It includes archetypes with magical gifts or qualities such as princesses, ogres, dragons, trolls, false heroes, fairy godmothers, wicked stepmothers and magical helpers who may be non-human creatures
  • It may include prohibitions that are broken
  • It features a protagonist who goes through a series of adventures, and a villain who is vanquished
  • Its concludes with a wedding, the acquisition of wealth or wisdom, or maybe simple survival
  • Originally intended for adults it also appeals to children
  • It betrays its origins in an oral tradition

It’s clear that much of fantasy, a literary phenomenon, overlaps with fairytale since much of this list applies equally to both genres; indeed there exists a ‘fairytale fantasy’ sub-genre which specifically draws on traditional wonder tales, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust being a prime example.

More overlaps occur between fairytale, myth and legend in that they are sometimes unsurprisingly used as synonyms for each other. Strictly speaking myths (Greek mythos means ‘story’) are narratives about creation, humanity’s origins, the deeds of gods and heroes and, frequently, the end of time; in myths the once mighty gods can often appear little more than fairies. Indeed the trio of goddesses known as the Fates who controlled human destinies is etymologically linked to Italian fata, French fée and English ‘fay’ (‘fairy’ or ‘faery’ originally meant ‘the land of the fay’). The diminutive gossamer-winged fairies of post-Shakespearean England are sadly much reduced goddesses; some of their power can still be sensed in the Sleeping Beauty story. On the other hand legends (from Latin legenda, ‘things that are read’) were originally written-down stories, usually with fantastical elements, which tend to be linked to actual places and historical periods. They have a propensity to merge into fairytale in popular imagination and literature, as in Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle (1819) set in the Catskill Mountains, NY around the time of the American War of Independence.

The fairytale has a long history going back millennia (as Graham Anderson’s excellent Fairytale in the Ancient World demonstrates). Apuleius’ 2nd-century narrative The Golden Ass (Penguin Books have a fine translation by Robert Graves) includes a few, most famously the Beauty and the Beast tale type in its Cupid and Psyche episode. In the Middle Ages Boccaccio and Chaucer borrowed freely from both traditional and literary sources, while Italian folktale collections by Giovanni Straparola (Le Piacevoli Notti 1550s)and Giambattista Basile (17th century) were in their turn plundered by French authors Charles Perrault (Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé 1697) and Madame d’Aulnoy (Les Contes des Fées  1697 and Contes Nouveaux, ou Les Fées à la Mode 1698). It is mainly due to Perrault that we enjoy many fairytales still current today, such as Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty.

Soon after Perrault and d’Aulnoy published their contes Antoine Galland’s A Thousand and One Nights translation and adaptation of Middle Eastern wonder tales began to make its appearance, between 1704 and 1717. Better known to Anglophones as The Arabian Nights Galland’s volumes introduced Europe to the fashion for orientalism at a time when the Ottoman Empire had passed its apogee. E L Ranelagh’s The Past We Share: the Near Eastern Ancestry of Western Folk Literature (1979) however reminds us that Arabic influences in European fairytales predate this 18th-century revival.

The Brothers Grimm revived interest in fairytales as cultural expressions of the ‘folk’, in contrast to the elitist French salon retellings, in their  Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812 onwards). What is not often realised these days is that in subsequent editions the Grimms constantly rewrote and recast their received tales to make them more aesthetically ‘prefect’, worthy of das Volk; along the way they eliminated the overt sex and violence to make them appropriate for younger readers and added Christian and pedagogic elements to give them a moral flavour. This assumption — that fairytales ought to be aimed at children — is one that has largely held way since, from the literary tales of Hans Christian Anderson (from 1835) onwards. The Victorian period represents the high water mark for the fairytale with famous exponents such as Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde and George MacDonald producing classics of the genre. To change the watery metaphor, the floodgates opened by the Grimms created a torrent that continued well into the 20th century via authors as diverse as L Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz appeared in 1900), Andrew Lang (his twelve-volume fairytale collection was published between 1889 and 1910) and Edith Nesbit (Five Children and It 1902).

As fairytale adapted to the modern world (with the introduction of flying monkeys and a psammead, for example) its audience was acknowledged as made up of adults as well as children. Bertolt Brecht and Hermann Hesse pointed out its political and psychological aspects, and Angela Carter explored its feminist dimension. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride pointed up its humorous and metafictional potential while Disney, while producing animated films with a universal rating, gave the fairytale an American dimension, deliberately ransacking first European and then non-European traditions, mutating them in the process.

I have a mini-library of fairytale collections from various European countries as well as from Russia, Turkey and beyond, all amassed and perused over decades. I also own several studies and reference works by academics such as Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Bruno Bettelheim, Vladimir Propp, Marina Warner and their ilk which I desperately want to get back to. The fact that fantasy and regurgitated fairytales remain popular for all ages in print and film and that scholarly research continues apace should be enough to convince doubters that wonder tales are not just for children; we all deserve a good dose of the marvellous to balance up the bad news we’re fed on a daily basis and to keep our minds and spirits healthy and optimistic.

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6 thoughts on “Filled with the marvellous

  1. *doubtfully* I suppose my latest could be called ‘epic fairytale fantasy’ although it also qualifies under the fairy tale descriptor, seein’ as ‘ow it’s about fairies. I can tell you from bitter experience that it is a devilishly difficult genre. At least, if one has the slightest aspirations of doing it well.

    1. Epic fairytale fantasy? Ah, but can you beat ‘urban fantasy weird fiction’? I’d prefer to eschew labels if the rest of the damn world didn’t demand it. Aspirations of ‘doing it well’? I expect you’d also have aspirations of ‘it doing well’, and I suppose that depends on selling it well — and that includes getting the label right… Good luck, Col!

    1. Thanks, Marisa, glad you enjoyed it! I always maintain that a large proportion of us live our lives according to a script, and that many of these scripts — tragedy or comedy, quest or journey or overcoming the monster,in which we are the heroine or hero — are determined by fairytale tropes; I suspect that this is why the genre is so engrained in our psyches, whether we like it or not.

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