Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Modern Fairy Stories"

In 1955, Roger Lancelyn Green published an anthology called “Modern Fairy Stories.” The stories themselves were published between 1839 and 1907 and are arranged chronologically (by publication date). Famous writers like Lewis Carroll, Andrew Lang, Oscar Wilde, George MacDonald, Rudyard Kipling, and Kenneth Grahame are included, as are lesser-known folks (most notably, Juliana Horatia Ewing and Edith Nesbit). If you come across a copy, it’s well worth reading.

Mr. Green, the editor, puts these stories forward as a new genre, the “fairy story,” as opposed to the traditional “fairy tale”—a story with no known author that was being told long before being written down by Grimm, Perrault, or Dasent. What makes a “fairy story” different for Green, as far as I can tell, is that it’s invented by a (British) “modern” writer, though it’s usually modeled on traditional tales. Unlike the traditional fairy tale, the individual author’s personality (or authorial voice) comes through in differing degrees.

These writers differed quite a bit in how they tackled the challenge of writing in the fairy tale / folktale tradition. Or, put another way, they used “fairy tale” elements for very different purposes. Some take a light, humorous tone; at times they even poke fun at fairy tale themes, usually with good reason. Edith Nesbit (among others) seems to enjoy that—especially the “curse at a royal christening” theme—putting the humor to good use. Andrew Lang, too—for instance, he pokes fun of the traditional fairy wood. At points they’re almost flippant with the tradition. Others are more serious, perhaps moralizing—or anti-moralizing, like F. Anstey in “The Good Little Girl.” And one or two do something like allegory. Oscar Wilde and George MacDonald excel at that.

In terms of straight-forward fairy-tale quality, the best in the collection (to me) was John Ruskin’s story, “The King of the Golden River.” It was pretty close to the longest, but it translates well into an oral retelling. It relies least, maybe, on style or authorial cleverness, and most on the deeply embedded movement of traditional themes. Bad, greedy brothers and a good-hearted youth, each passing through a test—only the last surviving.

As a side note—the sort of thing we don’t usually get for a fairy tale—we get the hint from Mr. Green that Ruskin’s creation of this tale might have helped him win his future bride.

Green, writing in the 1950s, seems to think the “modern” writers struggled to take the old fairy tale tradition seriously—though not all of them, I think, were put off by its magical qualities. MacDonald and Wilde and Ruskin don’t struggle with that; they use it. And there’s a difference. But some writers in this collection do: they act like magic and fairies and spells are for children, though they’re willing to use these traditional elements to spin a tale for entertainment. Needless to say—if you’re a fan of fantasy—that’s inadequate.

Even so, here was a nice glimpse into an early modern stage of writing in the fairy tale tradition, where folks were trying to make use of what the tradition had handed down, and sometimes—when they respected it—wove from it something approaching a new classic.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Christmas Story

We may not think of it as a “fairy tale,” but the Christmas story is part of the story-telling tradition we’ve all inherited. And, as such, it has lots of the elements of a “sideways-in” story.

First, think of the main characters. Joseph is a carpenter—a man with little, if any, political sway, and probably not all that wealthy. Mary, his fiancée, is a traditional girl, faithful, reverent, maybe a little sheltered. Both of them are completely unprepared for what’s about to happen. Neither of them looks like they’ll have a major role in shaping world events. Kings, empires, political parties, are swirling around at what seem to be the distant “centers” of the real action. In other words, they’re like most of us.

And yet, almost in secret, they’re both descendents of an ancient, powerful king, the ruler of a golden age long since lost.

What’s more, they live in a very small town, days’ journey from any city that matters. They’re ruled by a petty king who answers to a much more powerful, foreign ruler. None of these rulers is authentic, and the kingdom itself is oppressive, with heavy taxes and abusive soldiers, and no regard for traditional values.

And then, something “magical” happens. An angel, a miracle, misunderstandings, a journey, hardship, portents, an evil king trying to kill the miracle child: flight and a narrow escape. All this unfolds, from the seemingly insignificant beginning in a small backwater town far from the centers of power. As if to underline this sideways-in quality, you have the famous crèche scene, with a stable and manger, and shepherds—peasants from the margins of society—coming to pay the newborn king his first homage.

Of course the story goes on. But it starts from the side, not the top—at least, from one point of view, though sometimes the narrator “knows” that things really are unfolding “from the top.” It’s not a perfect analogy, but you can see that this story, deeply embedded in our consciousness, touches themes we love to explore when we read (and write) fairy tales and fantasy.

And that could be a source of hope to many of us: that stories of ultimate importance share the notion that, in the end, it’s the unremarkable, small-town laborer or naïve girl-child on whom the restoration of our world really turns.

As the story puts it, “This shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Genius of Compelling Fantasy

I think most fantasy fans would agree that fantasy has some link to fairy tales. At least it did when fantasy first started being written. Should it still? Here’s my two cents.

Traditional folktales or “fairy tales” have a kind of power that shouldn’t be lost in fantasy – at least not all of it. The “genius” of a compelling fantasy novel is its ability to evoke that mythic or faerie “dream-world” Novalis wrote about (see my first post, “What is a fairy tale?”). It can do this in varying degrees and however the writer feels the urge, but to do it effectively, it has to draw from the taproot itself. Put another way, it can’t be derivative to achieve its true genius. The writer of a fantasy novel (at least of the kind I’m thinking of) has to be steeped in these imaginative traditions at least enough that they bleed in some way into the tale, like tea leaves darkening water. Otherwise, we are left with the individual writer’s own imagination, such as it is, and we’ve lost the tradition that makes for compelling fantasy.

Any long piece of writing is an almost magical act of communication by symbol and sign, evocation and allusion. In fantasy, of course anything can be imagined—there can’t be any hard-and-fast rules about that. Let the imagination roam free, and let it use any source materials it must. But if the story is going to unfold magically also in the reader’s imagination, something shared has to exist. Allusion has to find something beyond the individual writer’s mind to tap into.

Take Tolkien, for instance. In creating Middle Earth, he managed to convince quite a few people that this place was (almost?) real. He did this, I would suggest, by drawing on the mythology and folktale with which he was very well acquainted. From that deep, subterranean stream, he drew out inspiration for strange things like “gollums” and rings of power. He brought in crystal balls, wizards, ghosts, trolls—even pipe tobacco. All of this he combined into his own brew, with patience and hard work I might add, paying attention to the potent properties of each, as they contributed to what was not only a new story but almost a new genre of story—the fantasy epic.

When fantasy is at its best, to me—and this is just my opinion—it draws on this deep, subterranean stream. The reader recognizes, even without having read (say) Snow White, the envious queen, her vanity and guile, as well as the purity and tragedy of her victim. Less convincing or potent—again just my preference—is the fantasy novel that relies on what we can call derivative fantasy tropes, ones used by many fantasy writers before, perhaps even Tolkien (say, dwarves and elves at odds, or little people who are amazingly tough). Successful fantasy can find the power from the old traditional tales—however used, however innovative that use. Using fantasy tropes or themes runs the risk of mistaking incidental details in the old faerie tale tradition for their real power and promise. Knowing (or at least using) only Tolkien but not (say) Beowulf, the creator of a fantasy story will be unable to go beyond Tolkien’s particular use of traditional tale elements, combined as the tale he told required, and so will be hampered from bringing forward anew the power of those and other elements for the new story he or she wishes to tell.

What do you think? Have you ever been disappointed by a fantasy novel that’s full of well-worn tropes and creatures? Have you ever read fantasy that seems to draw fresh vitality from those same tropes and creatures? How would you explain it?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fairy Tales and Fantasy Novels

What traditional fairy tales share with modern fantasy novels, if anything, is usually the scenario of placing a normal person in a strange environment, forcing him or her to make choices that will lead to either a good outcome, or (more rarely) not. This normal person doesn’t have to be a human from our own modern world. She or he can be a cobbler or a fishwife or an inn-keeper that belongs to a kind of imaginary society (of the writer’s invention)—or a hobbit, for that matter—pulled into a place where the normal rules don’t apply, where the magic of legend and lore is fully alive, or where wits are needed to escape an unusual dilemma.

Unusual … and yet the wonder and power of a novel, as opposed to a fairy tale, is the opportunity to explore at much greater length some aspect of the human condition that we all share. (Some of the best fairy tales do something like this in a very short span.) So a reader sitting in an electrically heated or cooled house who has never hunted boar in the woods can identify with the hero on horseback facing down a prodigious creature he’s dreamed of slaying and being slain by. And part of the reason we can identify with such a hero is that most of us, at the end of the day, are (on the face of it, at least) normal, unimportant people, who find ourselves facing forces larger than ourselves. The setting of the story is part of the magic by which we can vicariously face our own large and small foes, whatever they are, and imagine how we might respond like—or unlike—the hero of the tale.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What is a “fairy tale”? Part 3

A fairy tale is normally about an average person who collides with this world of wonder, a world that actually dwells beneath or alongside the everyday one, or maybe is the "truth" behind the everyday one. (Magic in this context is part of the fabric of the world or “otherworld,” not an add-on.) Often this everyday person is the victim of powerful people. In the old days, when most fairy tales were first being told, that was usually a king or a queen, sometimes a wicked mother-in-law (who might be a queen) or an older brother (who might be a king). For whatever reason, the unlikely hero finds herself or himself crossing some kind of frontier. Usually a forest, though not always. That new environment is, of course, inhabited by outlandish or fey creatures. Sometimes the rules that hold there are just … different.

In one common kind of tale, the hero has to survive this strange otherworld through the goodness of his or her moral character, wits, cleverness, or some words of magic he or she somehow comes across. Heroes are rarely magicians or masters of magic, more often day-laborers, subsistence farmers, fishwives, or the like. Often help comes because of help offered to someone (or something) in need on the way. Hospitality is usually rewarded as much as skill. Goodness and luck are more important than physical strength.

The tales I’m thinking of aren’t moralizing. They aren’t always very sensible even, or easy to draw some simple meaning from. Their purpose is probably entertainment, though sometimes they have a moral in the sense that the good person tends to win the day, while the bad person tends to suffer some misfortune—not always in the same tale.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is a "fairy tale"? Part 2

Maybe Novalis is right, maybe that's what a fairy tale should be, but not every fairy tale really has that dreamlike quality about it (See my previous post, What is a "fairy tale"?). Most of them have a magical quality (what Novalis calls the "spirit world") as part of the fabric of the universe in which the tale takes place. But they are not uniformly "crowded" with a dreamlike panorama of lawless, magical beings.

What I find helpful in this quote is the reminder that "all of nature must be wonderfully mixed with all of the spirit world." In fairy tales, at least the traditional European kind Novalis has in mind, the world isn't neatly divided between "nature" and "super-nature," as if spiritual things are separate from the sober world in which laws of nature hold infallible sway. The purest kinds of fairy tales have a magic pervading them, not only because the reader is supposed to "suspend belief" in the normal laws of things, but because the world of the storyteller also harbors this element of wonder. Think deep woods--vast, unexplored woods with lonely cottages--and underground places and caves, rivers, mountain tunnels. While the natural world has this element of mystery, so do things that take place within it. You never know, crossing a great forest, what sorts of being you'll meet, and what kinds of incredible powers they may have.

For us now, Novalis reminds us that to appreciate the fairy tale, we must recover this innate wonder of the world, withdrawing the probing eye of omniscient science, with its "laws," and return to a sense of lawlessness, anarchy in things natural. Spirit must invade nature, re-infusing it with wonder.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What is a "fairy tale"?

“One can think of it as a short tale without context, though with association, like a dream; a poem which is bare of euphonious and beautiful words, but also lacking all sense and context, at most some intelligible stanzas, like fragments from the most varied things. These true poems can have, at most, an allegorical sense in the whole, and an indirect effect, like music. That is why nature is so purely poetic, like the parlor of a magician, of a physicist, ....

“A maerchen is like a dream’s picture without context. An ensemble of wonderful objects and happenings, for example a musical fantasy, the harmonic result of an aeolic mode, nature itself. ...

“In a genuine maerchen all must be wonderful, mysterious and coherent; everything crowded, each from a different path. All of nature must be wonderfully mixed with all of the spirit world; here enters the time of anarchy, of lawlessness, freedom, the natural state of nature, the time before the world ... The world of the maerchen is that which is set up opposite the world of truth, and thus is like it as chaos is like completed creation.”

 - Novalis, quoted (in German) by George MacDonald at the beginning of his “faerie romance,” Phantastes. I can think of no better place to begin.


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