Irrepressible transformations

Titania and Oberon from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Long Ago and Far Away:
eight traditional fairy tales
Foreword by Marina Warner;
translated by Nigel Bryant, David Carter and Ann Lawson Lucas
Hesperus Press 2012

We’re so used to canonic versions of fairy tales that it’s easy to forget (if we ever knew) that fairy tales come in all shapes and sizes, and have always done so. Those canonic versions are different for each one of us — they may have first appeared in translation from the Brothers Grimm; we may have been introduced to the bowdlerised retellings published by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913; or Disney’s animated films may have been our first encounter with them — but whatever the source these usually serve as our personal ur-texts.

So it is nearly always disconcerting to come across variations of our ur-texts, versions which may be so unfamiliar as to make us doubt they belong to the same family. Marina Warner introduces nine selections for this slim volume, giving us such standard fare as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ — but in early literary forms that may puzzle and confuse.

The nine examples, Warner tells us, “give a sense of the liberty of the genre, its general indifference to seemliness, its ‘cunning and high spirits’ [. . .] and its inventiveness.” The first tale is at once the earliest and one of the longest: it is a version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from Perceforest, with all the seeming waywardness that characterises much medieval romance. This is followed by extracts from Giambattista Basile’s Il Pentamerone which treat the ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’ tropes in a truly fantastic fashion. Here is the horrific summary of what happened to Lisa, the Snow White figure, who secretly tells her doll about

… her mother’s leap over the rose bush, her eating of the leaf, her giving birth, the spell put on her, the curse of the fairy, and all the rest about the comb on her head, her death, her enclosure in the seven caskets placed in the room, her mother’s death, the legacy of the key left to the brother, his departure to the hunt, his wife’s jealousy, the opening of the room against his orders, the cutting of her hair, her treatment as a slave and the many, many tortures inflicted on her.

There is a happy ending, roughly as per the familiar ‘Snow White’ tale, but the details seem barely to match up with the expected ‘official’ account.

The two versions of what we know as ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ given us here point up the differences between the literary and oral tellings. Charles Perrault includes the usual ritualised dialogue (“Grandmother, what big ears you have!” etc) though without rescue by the huntsman; a 19th-century French oral version features instead un bzou or werewolf whom the little girl luckily manages to thwart and elude, again unassisted by a huntsman, even lacking distinguishing clothing to give her an identity.

Perrault’s tale of le petit poucet (referred to here as Thumberling) is clearly a variant of the Hansel and Gretel trope we know from the Grimms, but introduces us to an ogre instead of a cannibalistic witch. Naturally this puts us in mind of Jack and the Beanstalk but once again our expectations are confounded, for in the 18th-century chapbook version included here we encounter an enchantress (who is Jack’s grandmother), while all kinds of fantastical transformations occur, and Jack interacts with a princess, a prince called John and a giant called Gogmagog; the whole ends up a metafictional piece of nonsense.

Long Ago and Far Away concludes with two celebrated literary narratives, an abridgement of Madame de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast coming first. This is followed by an abridgement of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine: this turns out to be more involved and tragic than Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’. I remember first reading Undine many years ago in a hardback edition from 1912 (it was first translated in 1896 by Edmund Gosse) and finding its convolutions hard to follow; more recently though I enjoyed Ursula Le Guin’s riff on the theme which she included in the collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

Marina Warner warns us that “the folklorists of the nineteenth century laid too much emphasis on a national Geist (spirit) expressed by stories told in a certain language,” while their theories of origins and narratives “was starkly schematic and has been superseded.” She rightly emphasises that such tales, far from becoming fixed and static, will “undergo irrepressible transformations” despite being committed to print and, we may add, re-presented in media undreamt of by those folklorists.

This is intended to be the start of an occasional foray into folklore and fairytale, whether in retellings or through published studies and collections; for I believe that the roots of most of our contemporary narratives are influenced, for better or worse, by our experience of tales told to us when young, and that these tales were, one way or another, founded on tale types, tropes and archetypes imprinted on us all at an impressionable age.

12 thoughts on “Irrepressible transformations

    1. Ha! That “piece of nonsense” is by an anonymous author who has jazzed up the bits of genuine folklore with joke names, elements of late medieval romance and Renaissance magic, plus lashings of farce, and served it up with knowing winks and asides—a parody of fairytale, as authentic as a Christmas pantomime in a seaside theatre. I’m sure Propp would either have dismissed it out of hand or else concocted one of the most complicated schema of the types he produced for his structural analysis. (A little like the meanderings of that last sentence!)

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  1. This looks a fascinating collection and I enjoyed your review very much!

    The version of Red Riding Hood that I like best, though it isn’t my ur-text, is the Grimms’ version in which the grandmother as well as the girl survive being eaten and then, when they are threatened by a second wolf, they cleverly lure him to his death by boiling sausage water. It’s more cheery and less preachy than the Perrault.

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    1. Thanks, Helen. I remember a number of versions of ‘Red Riding Hood” in Maria Tatar’s The Classic Fairy Tales, many of which didn’t end well — and I don’t mean for the wolf! I must check if your version is included when I’m back home 😊

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  2. Pingback: Irrepressible transformations — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. Fascinating! I love exploring the darker origins of these tales…I wish I could better understand what transition we take with these twisted, dark tapestries and reweave them to be prettier, sweeter, kinder. What motivates us to glue angel wings on demons?


    1. Ooooh, what a lovely response — “What motivates us to glue angel wings on demons?” and reweaving twisted dark tapestries “to be prettier, sweeter, kinder” — can I pinch these wonderful images?! Better still, have you used them in a novel already? 😀

      I’m reminded of Angela Carter’s retellings which, in a way, revert to these dark origins but re-posit them as inverted images, in a glass darkly as it were.

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