Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The Fairy Way of Writing" - Joseph Addison

In 1712, a British critic named Joseph Addison discussed what we would call “fantastic” or “fairy stories” as an identifiable literary form. This is, he says, “The Fairy Way of Writing”:

There is a kind of writing wherein the poet quite loses sight of nature and entertains his reader’s imagination with the characters and actions of such persons as have many of them no existence but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits.

Addison seems to think, when the story is “fantastic,” art becomes something apart from nature. While this may appear to make sense, in fact fantasy arguably requires more sympathy with nature, not less. What’s more, the beings he mentions don’t exist merely in the author’s or readers’ imagination. They exist in a tradition of storytelling that both author and reader dip into.

Addison seems to admit this a little later in the essay:

Besides possessing “a particular cast of fancy, and an imagination naturally fruitful and superstitious”, the author “ought to be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women, that he may fall in with our natural prejudices, and humor those notions which we have imbibed in our Infancy.”

In effect, fantastic tales “work” because we recognize something in them, however strange their new embodiment in this particular tale. This, by the way, is nice early confirmation for a point I’ve made before in this blog: to write good fantasy, it’s crucial to really know the deeper stratum of folk and fairy tradition that is employed – whatever tradition the author chooses.

Now back to Addison: Even stranger, at one point in the essay he seems to admit the possible existence of fantastic kinds of beings:

we are sure in general there are many intellectual beings in the world besides our selves, and several species of spirits, who are subject to different laws and economies from those of mankind.

It’s not clear to me how seriously he means this. If he’s serious, this leaves open the possibility of “wonder,” the sneaking suspicion that these stories (or something like them) might really be true.

As a recent critic, David Sandner, puts it, “Modern skeptical humanity should be immune to the ‘secret terrors’ of the fantastic, but is not.” Sandner adds that this is part of fantasy’s “power,” namely, its ability to reawaken our supposedly bygone, superstitious fears. (Think ghosts, goblins, demons.)

But critics of fantasy sometimes point to this very power as a fault: the longings and fears fantasy reawakens are “childish." From a staunchly modern perspective, this “childhood” is also the childhood of humanity—the “premodern man.” If readers discover that they are, in some way, “premodern” (superstitious, irrational, unenlightened) … Well, I don’t think that’s the fault of fantastic literature. It only shows that fantastic stories, done well, are a rightful part of our human storytelling heritage.

I’ll conclude with a quote that shows how perceptive Addison could be about what makes for a good, effective “fantastic” story. He says that if the author of a fantastic story lacks a deep knowledge of traditional legends and folk tales,

he will be apt to make his fairies talk like people of his own species, and not like other sets of beings ... and think in a different manner from that of mankind ....

Source: David Sandner, Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (Praeger, 2004), 21-23; 316-325.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Three Myths about Fairy Tales

With apologies to the real meaning of the word “myth,” three common notions about fairy tales should be put aside:

  1. fairy tales are for children
  2. fairy tales are for women (or girls)
  3. fairy tales must be turned upside down to be meaningful to people today

Myth #1 is easy to overthrow, in theory. It was one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s points in “On Fairy Stories.” He asks, Why shouldn’t a grown man read fairy stories, not for scholarly reasons, but for enjoyment? Why not, indeed? I’m forty and never have I enjoyed them more than now—or got more from them. Tolkien explains why: the stories weren’t written especially for children, and aren’t especially enjoyable to them. More recently than Tolkien, Terri Windling and the folks at Endicott Studio have done a lot of work to dispel this myth, too, pointing out (as Tolkien did) the damages done to fairy stories when they are censored “for kids.” Then again, prominent scholars of fairy tales (like Maria Tatar) don’t shy away from associating fairy tales with “children’s literature." And there’s Disney, and the ongoing production of book adaptations for children. If you write a fairy tale, you still have to go out of your way to tell people it’s for adults. And then you’re into a whole new category of difficulty …

This brings us to myth #2, the idea that fairy tales are for girls and women. I have a theory about this (as about most things): Disney fairy tales usually end with a young woman becoming stunningly beautiful and marrying “prince charming,” the man of her dreams. This is about as common in actual fairy tales as fairy godmothers, and less common (for instance) than guns. In fairy tales, including Grimm’s “Cinderella,” even if the girl is magically beautiful (among other things), she rarely “falls in love” in the modern sense. By today’s film and print standards, fairy tale romances are perfunctory. The girl goes and marries some prince—she rises up in the world, she marries upward. End of story. He maybe puts her on a horse in front of him, and they’re man and wife. Her romantic attachment to the prince or woodsman or whoever is slim to missing. And most fairy tales have nothing to do with becoming beautiful or marrying a prince. It’s a sub-set of a much larger genre. (See “The Juniper Tree” and “The King of the Golden Mountain” for nice counter-examples.)

Because women are generally seen as the guardians of the romantic ideal of “true love” (pardon the stereotype, which is not my view!), and because fairy tales are wrongly thought to be about finding true love, people seem to assume that fairy tales are for women. (This is obviously wrong on all three fronts.) So you start out by giving girls fairy tale character bedroom sets (the boys get, I don’t know, dinosaurs). You create Abby Cadabby on Sesame Street. Snow White lunch boxes. Cinderella barrettes. Etc. And then people grow up assuming the two go together—girls and fairy tales. And now we have “adult” versions of fairy tales, by which people often mean erotic stories geared for women.

How do you tell people that a fairy tale is meant for adults now, in the old sense of “adult”?

Which brings us to myth #3: the idea that fairy tales have to be turned upside down for today’s readers. I want to blame this on Shrek, and at the same time point out that Shrek isn’t really as subversive as people seem to think. Shrek appears to make fun of fairy tales. The fairy tale that probably takes the biggest hit is “Beauty and the Beast” (which, according to Heidi Anne Heiner, was invented by a French woman in the 18th century. In Andrew Lang’s edition, the story plays heavily on the theme of appearances versus reality. Loyalty to family and loved ones is also strong in the tale. Romance is an important side-show.)

But how does Shrek subvert the fairy tale? In one small, incidental detail: the heroine does not become more beautiful, but more ugly. And yet she does it for true love (not a common fairy tale theme, but often confused with one), and she and her unorthodox husband live more or less happily ever after. Or so we can assume at this stage of the saga. But really, what traditional folktale-loving audience would want to see Lord Farquaad get Fiona in the end? That downfall of the evil king is textbook fairytale stuff. Textbook. Traditional. No subversion at all there.

I suppose I should also bring in Wicked (which subverts another literary tale) and other examples. Such retellings have set off a fever of revisionist inversions. But the point I want to make about myth #3 is that the fairy tales and folk tales are themselves already often about everyday people struggling against unforeseen forces, against people (sometimes governments or rulers) more powerful than themselves, and sometimes winning through trickery and at other times through luck (or nature-magic). Yes, there are real bad guys (like Lord Farquaad, but less banal in their wickedness). And no, the witch and the wolf are not the heroes. And if you like stories where the traditional bad guy turns out to be the real good guy, more power to you. Enjoy. Nor would I say that traditional fairy tales are always or even mostly subversive of traditional values. Far from it. But then, neither are most real people, driving on the right side of the road and paying taxes, mowing their lawns and dressing like the people around them. That said, the stories don’t support the status quo in any straightforward way.

The fairy tales and folk tales that I’m most familiar with are more often about everyday people facing strange and—let’s face it—evil things, and doing (or trying to do) the right thing, whatever “right” is in their context. Usually showing loyalty to their own. I could be wrong (it’s common enough), but I think that still connects with people today—even adult men.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fantasy - according to Ursula K. Le Guin

The wise Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the much-loved Earthsea novels, published a classic article on fantasy in 1973, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” What Tolkien called “faerie,” Le Guin calls “Elfland”:

Let us consider Elfland as a great national park, a vast beautiful place where a person goes by himself, on foot, to get in touch with reality in a special, private, profound fashion.

From this beginning, Le Guin argues that “certain writers of fantasy” despoil “elfland” by making it too accessible, too familiar—by, in short, demanding too little commitment from the reader. Her essay focuses on style—as in, the way the story is told, including especially the language used. It’s a very good argument. But here, rather than rehash it, I want to cull from it the gems Le Guin drops regarding the nature of fantasy.

The quote above already gives us one clue to her vision: faerie is a place where readers can uniquely come into contact with reality. It’s a wild place, not necessarily congenial to life elsewhere, in “Poughkeepsie.” As she puts it, “you are not at home there.”

As she circles closer to this peril and foreignness, Le Guin compares fantasy to “a game played for very high stakes.” She writes, “It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence.” This, by the way, is a common sentiment about fairy stories more generally, among their admirers. Such stories present the reader with an “alternative,” a parallel that heightens experience and, in this way, discloses human nature. Similarly, for Le Guin, fantasy involves “a heightening of reality.”

In its approach and its materials, then, fantasy is “nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction.” Returning to her metaphor of the park, she asserts, “It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe.” One thinks of Tolkien’s remarks about the perils of faerie—warnings every adventurer would do well to heed. As I understand this, fantasy (when it’s done well) works to concentrate nature—including human nature—to reveal what normally lies hidden. In a sense, fantasy is to nature as poetry is to language.

As I mentioned above, Le Guin’s central argument is about style, and the bulk of her essay focuses there. In the midst of this argument, though, she drops another gem: filling a story with the trappings of fantasy—dragons, hippogriffs, a Medieval setting, knights, castles—doesn’t make it authentic. True fantasy is, for her, “a journey,” comparable to psychoanalysis. It “employs archetypes,” which, she reminds us, “are dangerous things.” Here one thinks of Terri Windling, who sees intimate, internal journeys as a rightful domain of fantasy.

But Le Guin’s essay focuses on heroic or “epic” fantasy. So, much of her argument about style has to be considered in that light. Even so, her demand for a costly journey into “faerie” is valuable for all of us. At least for me: it helps to account for my disinterest in much of what passes for “fantasy” on the paperback rack at the local library. She reminds me, “A writer may use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything.” But this “commercial exploitation of the holy ground of Myth” comes at a cost: it devalues the essential promise of the genre.

These impassioned, insightful remarks from a skilled storyteller brush gently against others I’ve noted in prior posts. If you have a chance to read the essay, it’s well worth the effort, and still timely some thirty-nine years after publication.

[Note: You can read some of Le Guin's critical essays here.]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Snow White and Her Shepherd

Today’s post will be a little more personal. For years now, off and on, I’ve been working on a fantasy story about a shepherd, Foldwin, who crosses paths with a wild, beautiful, enchanted young woman. Call it my pet project. Or maybe my apprenticeship.

I started the story as a gift for my wife, who loves fairy tales. In fact, the bones of the story trace back to a road trip in which, to while away the time, she and I hatched a short adventure about an enchanted girl driven from home by a jealous mother, and the farm boy who agrees to escort her home—not knowing what he’s in for, of course. When I sat down a couple of years later to write the tale down, it came out much longer than I’d expected. Challenges and twists presented themselves, and—in the spirit of Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories”—I met them, unafraid to dip into the cauldron of tales, such I knew it then.

Some things I drew out of that cauldron included talking donkeys, a snowy mountain, a wicked queen with an enchanted mirror, and a golden realm—faerie within faerie, so to speak. The girl, unbeknownst to me, was a kind of Snow White figure, though without the gullible passivity. In fact, she scared the life out of that poor shepherd, half the time, even though—predictably—he fell in love with her.

In the end, the story stretched to almost 50,000 words—a short novel, and one of the longest things I’d written up to that point. I combed out some of the worst tangles and presented it to her. And she liked it very much.

That probably could have, and maybe even should have, been the end of that story. But I took in my mind that, rather than just working at a factory forty hours a week (as I was then doing), I might be able to write my way out of such tedium and into something much better. Or at least, I thought, maybe I can write my way out of debt. So I began the long process of trying to learn about publishing, and I edited and completed earlier stories and started sending them out. I worked over Foldwin too, and sent it to several publishers. They all liked the sound of it, all ordered a fuller sample, and all passed on it. (Shrug)

So I shelved it. Then re-edited it, sent it out a couple more times. Then shelved it again.

And came back to it years later. (It’s on my shelf again, but that’s not where this is going.) In an earlier post, I referred to the perils of embarking on a journey to faerie. This is my prime example. “Foldwin the Shepherd” was (and is) in essence a fairy story. As such, it had the tendency (in the earlier drafts) to pass over as assumed things that, in a novel, ought to be explained. Such as why a shepherd would volunteer to help a wild, standoffish young woman. In the fairy tales, the shepherd would obviously do that—it’s how he and the reader embark on the story itself. So it was in my story. But at 50k words, you don’t get to pull that stunt. Novel readers expect some probing of the characters’ psyche, or at least an account of their motivations.

Putting in that kind of insight added thirty-five thousand words to the second draft. But then other things had to be explained. And, for that matter, angles and tensions and suspense suggested themselves for inclusion. After all, in a fairy tale of three pages, you don’t have a lot of time for themes or suspense. In a story of 75k words, you better have those, or your reader will feel like a part in an assembly line, experiencing discreet whams from a series of dies (with apologies for the factory metaphor …).

When it comes to themes and tensions, though, a fairy story presents unique challenges. For one thing, it strips away the limitations of our mundane life and, in their place, it demands an accounting of the laws of the story world. It demands that I, the writer, know why certain things can (and must) happen there, and what the new limitations are. For me, this meant becoming a more astute observer of nature in all its guises. I needed to learn how and why there was enchantment and magic, why donkeys could speak, and why the witch-queen surrounded herself with snow. All this while I was trying to learn the mechanics of good novel writing.

But aside from these technical matters, a fairy story demands from the writer an honest self-knowledge that, at that point in my life, I was still learning to embrace. Or maybe I should say it requires an openness to self-disclosure, a willingness to encounter oneself in strange places, to see oneself as something you had not expected to be. I think—I’m far from alone—that fantasy makes peculiar demands here, though my experience with quality literary fiction suggests a similar process.

In the end, my own complex rendering of a Snow White tale has turned out to be a kind of apprenticeship in fairy story creation. What I didn’t expect, was that I would be fashioned so much in the process.

Postscript: An excellent article on the Snow White strand of folk tales, by Terri Windling, can be found here. Among other things, it gives other examples of more pro-active Snow White figures.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Fantasy - according to Terri Windling

Terri Windling once gave a speech in which she laid out two realms of fantasy produced in the twentieth century:

those rooted in the grand themes, symbols, and language of myth, epic, and romance, and those rooted in the humbler stuff of folklore and fairy tales. The first category includes tales epic in scope, full of sweeping heroic adventures and battles on which the fate of worlds, or at least kingdoms, depend. The latter category includes much smaller tales, more intimate in nature — stories of individual rites of passage and personal transformation.

These two realms of fantasy, in turn, hark back to two very different ancient story-telling traditions. The epic kind, as she mentions, grows out of the court—the elite circles in which men of power and substance (or their supporters) passed down authoritative accounts of the world. Some of these epics can be quite profound meditations on the meaning of human existence, the struggle against corruption and overwhelming evil, or just the existential question of life’s meaning in the face of death. Think of Homer and Beowulf. Battle scenes are important to epic, partly because the story of struggle against evil foes is one way political regimes justify power. Romance, too, of the chivalrous kind, concerns men (and their consorts) in the aureate glow of the king and his court.

Windling’s second category harks back to a separate tradition of storytelling. As she puts it, “The oral folk tale tradition, on the other hand, was a peasant tradition, and a largely female one.” That peasant tradition, then, is less likely to be about the rise and fall of great empires, than to be about the rise and fall of a sharp-tongued girl, a submissive daughter, or an uppity son. Storytellers in this folk tradition work on themes that are no less hair-raising, no less pregnant with magic and evil. They’re simply for a different audience.

In some ways, in fact, the magic in the “peasant tradition” can be more unexpected and, therefore, more terrifying, more grim—maybe even more potent.

Modern fantasy novels generally take their departure, says Windling, from one or the other tradition. They can depart far from that tradition, of course, and individual writers can work in both mediums. There are no doubt instances where the two seem to merge. Literature rarely holds to type.

But Windling’s observations are worth bearing in mind. They offer a helpful corrective to thinking of “fantasy” as inevitably in the epic mode. Effective fantasy can thrive without battles, drawn swords or sieges on towns--with none of the machinery of war. It can have small people, girls and boys or peasants or herb-swilling old women … caught up in smaller tensions of magic or finding escape through it. And it can surprise us with its human insights along the way.


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