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.

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