Saturday, September 15, 2012

Folktale Humor and "The Reluctant Dragon"

Brer Rabbit
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Here’s a common kind of folktale: the humorous tale. Take Grimm's “The Gallant Tailor.” One thing I notice right away is its use of metaphors--not a given in the Grimm collection. Here are some examples:

And his heart quivered with joy, like a lamb’s tail.

“This is too much!” cried he, and sprang up like a madman and struck his companion such a blow that the tree shook above them.

They fled away as if they had been wild hares and none would venture to attack him.

These metaphors heighten the tale’s humor, the incongruity inherent in it. Soren Kierkegaard said that humor comes from joining two things that don’t belong together. I’ve often heard the term “apt metaphor,” but humor depends on something more like “surprising metaphor”—unexpected or inapt metaphor. Such as giants fleeing like wild hares.

Just as a fairy tale is an “apt metaphor” writ large, a humorous tale is an “unexpected metaphor” writ large. But this kind of story also uses more metaphor within the actual telling. The metaphors make the scenes funnier, which makes the story more entertaining. Or, in Mark Edmundson’s terms, they infuse the story with feeling—a humorous one.

The central metaphor for the “Gallant Tailor” is this: “his workshop seemed too small for his valor.” We ponder the incongruity throughout, even as we follow him to his triumph. By the end, this insignificant tailor will become a king. In pre-modern Europe, that’s about as absurd as you can get. But the tailor does it by being clever, as well as insanely puffed up with pride.

Let’s take a second example. I can’t help thinking of Brer Rabbit and his many close shaves. The stories are entertaining; they're funny. Part of the humor is that the smallest animal consistently outwits all the larger ones. Even Mr. Man comes out like a fool. Probably the sharpest contrast is between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. We all know foxes are clever, but here the rabbit is smarter.

Most of the stories turn on Brer Rabbit’s ability to bluff others into doing something that helps him and hurts them. Brer Rabbit gets what he wants—steals it, usually—and then someone else pays for it. Like “The Gallant Tailor,” Brer Rabbit stories are full of metaphors, all of them exaggerated, inapt, unexpected. Like the Gallant Tailor, he wins by being clever, even if he’s not exactly a deserving candidate for his good luck.

Contrast these traditional tales to a modern fairy story, the well-known “Reluctant Dragon” by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame’s humor is what I’d call jocular. He pokes fun in an amused sort of way. Consider this example:

What the boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.

Here’s another:

"Scales, you know, and claws, and a tail for certain, though I didn’t see that end of him—I ain’t used to ’em, and I don’t hold with ’em, and that’s a fact!"

The incongruity here is of a different kind: it has to do with the absurd situation of a man discovering an actual dragon, an animal of folklore (of uncultured, pre-modern tales), in a cave. The characters in the story are afraid—the shepherd and his wife in particular—but the reader isn’t meant to be. So—in other words—we’re laughing at him, the shepherd. This comes out in the next dialogue:

“It’s all right, Father. Don’t you worry. It’s only a dragon.”

“Only a dragon?” cried his father. “What do you mean, sitting there, you and your dragons? Only a dragon indeed! And what do you know about it?”

You’ll note the overstatement and understatement, another trait in humor.

When the boy meets the dragon, he’s surprised only that the animal is purring—another incongruity. But the main one for this tale, of course, is that the dragon just wants to be a nice fellow and get along with people. He explains:

“You see, all the other fellows were so active and earnest and all that sort of thing—always rampaging and skirmishing and scouring the desert sands, and pacing the margin of the sea, and chasing knights all over the place, and devouring damsels, and going on generally—whereas I liked to get my meals regular and then to prop my back against a bit of rock and snooze a bit, and wake up and think of things going on and how they kept going on just the same, you know!”

We’re meant to laugh, I think: What a funny idea, a dragon who makes fun of other dragons from those old silly tales! What a funny idea, a dragon who just wants to live peaceably! Instead of laughing at the tailor, or laughing with Brer Rabbit, we’re laughing at those dragons of old—at the fairy tales themselves, really.

The jocular tone of the story fits it very well. It’s the appropriate form for a story that says fairy tales shouldn’t be taken seriously. Dragons are the brunt of jokes; knights in shining armor are, when you think about it, foolish kinds of characters. Or—at least they are in a modern world, where these things (we know) don’t happen, where the old tales have lost their meaning. Let’s all have a laugh at our ancestors.

As you’ve guessed, I don’t share Grahame's humor. That's because I don’t share his infatuation with the modern world and its loss of wonder. But I admire the skill with which he’s told his tale, wedding a humorous form to a humorous tale.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The form of a fairy tale

Grimms' Fairy Tales
Mark Edmundson defines form as “the primary way that writers infuse their words with feeling.” A literary work’s form should be “in tune” with the story’s plot, should reveal and create emotion, and in that sense should reveal “how it feels to live the author’s truth.” In these senses, Edmundson tells us,

In the music of the lines, in the form, is an entire attitude, a bearing.

What is the “form” of a fairy story? Let me touch the iceberg here. This is John Ruskin, in “The King of the Golden River”:

And Gluck climbed to the brink of the Golden River, and its waves were as clear as crystal, and as brilliant as the sun. And, when he cast the three drops of dew into the stream, there opened where they fell a small circular whirlpool, into which the waters descended with a musical noise.

It seems to me Ruskin’s music is “as clear as crystal.” It does not cloak its meaning under metaphor. This is because a fairy story is already, in some sense, a metaphor writ large. But he does use descriptive detail in this and other scenes. His description gives a richness and color to the image I see when I read it. It invites me into nature. The feeling is there, too. It is a feeling of wonder, evoked by such primal words as “river,” “sun,” “dew,” and “whirpool.”

Here’s a more “classical” example, a few lines from “Rumpelstiltskin”:

There sat the unfortunate miller’s daughter, and for the life of her did not know what to do. She had not the least idea how to spin straw into gold, and she became more and more distressed until at last she began to weep. Then all at once the door sprang open, and in stepped a little man who said, “Good evening, Mistress Miller. What are you weeping so for?”

Here description has fallen away, and the narrator tells us only enough to bring us, without damage, to the intrusion of magic into the tale. The storyteller does build up the girl’s distress, but with a very light hand. The mundane details—what she was wearing, how she gestured when she cried, what the room and the little man looked like—are left to us to construe as we like. And we do like, I think, to construe them in our own minds (or perhaps not, for not all readers do this).

So here in Grimm we seem to have a simple form, where the magic is highlighted by the paring away of everyday detail. This holds true in the rest of the tale, until we come to this episode:

On the third day the messenger came back and said, “I haven’t been able to find any new names, but as I came round the corner of a wood on a lofty mountain, where the fox says good night to the hare, I saw a little house, and in front of the house a fire was burning. And around the fire a most ridiculous little man was leaping. He was hopping on one leg and singing …”

Here the storyteller slows down to give us description. As in Ruskin’s story, nature is the storyteller’s object, and in a poetic vein. Something like a metaphor appears in “the fox says good night to a hare,” but the whole scene is more like an etching than a realist painting. It is the crux of the story, too, and one can taste the triumph here that will come at the expense of the little man. Again, primal words like primary colors come at us: “wood,” “mountain,” “house,” “fire.” The leaping man, the “one leg”—none of this is wasted. It serves him up for our enjoyment.

“Fundevogel” (a foundling tale) works the same way, but without any humor at all. Notice how sparse is the introduction of its horrific theme:

So then the cook said, “Tomorrow morning early, when the forester goes out hunting, I am going to boil the water. And when it bubbles in the kettle, I am going to throw Fundevogel into it and boil him.”

Such sparseness of detail, just as we saw above, is characteristic of these tales. But it does not diminish the story’s horror; to me, it conveys it more directly. This is just how it happens in life. I’m not plagued by a premonition. The clouds don’t darken overhead. I just find myself in the presence of someone capable of unspeakable evil, realizing it only after the words have come out of her mouth.

The story is sparse all throughout, almost like a mourner’s tale. It’s as if the story’s emotion has been stripped out of it. But one small bit of conversation gets repeated four times.

Lina said to Fundevogel, “Do not forsake me, and I will never forsake you.”
And Fundevogel answered, “I will never forsake you as long as I live.”

This exchange, or some other untold force, allows Fundevogel to perform magic, which again is described in simple, straightforward language. The cook, “the witch,” is an embodiment of evil, a threat that comes without dark clouds or foul weather; the threat is always thwarted by magic, but that magic comes in response to this deep friendship between Lina and Fundevogel. Very little description is given in the whole tale, and it loses nothing from that. The spare sentences again have the effect of heightening the dramatic action, moving us quickly from one magical intervention to another. The witch’s frustration is disclosed by her words and demeanor. But the storyteller infuses the whole tale with feeling only at the point of that repeated vow of undying friendship. Set against an uninflected narrative voice, that quiet vow speaks eloquently.

Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (Bloomsbury, 2004)
R. L. Green, Modern Fairy Stories (Dutton, 1955)
Grimms' Fairy Tales, translated by E. V. Lucas, Lucy Crane and Marian Edwards (Grosset & Dunlap)

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mark Twain on Amateur Authors

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

In his autobiography, Twain writes:

Not even the most confident untrained soldier offers himself as a candidate for brigadier-generalship, yet this is what the amateur author does. With his untrained pen he puts together his crudities and offers them to all the magazines, one after the other—that is to say, he proposes them for posts restricted to literary generals who have earned their rank and place by years and even decades of hard and honest training in the lower grades of the service.

How times have changed, right? Right. He goes on:

We do not realize how strange and curious a thing this is until we look around for an object lesson whereby to realize it to us.

He proposes: opera. Suppose a man signs up for second tenor with the opera and (just pretend) suppose he gets the slot without a tryout. They go to perform.

After the first act the manager calls the second tenor to account and wants to know. He says:
“Have you ever studied music?”
“A little—yes, by myself, at odd times, for amusement.”
“You have never gone into regular and laborious training, then, for the opera, under the masters of the art?”
“Then what made you think you could do second tenor in Lohengrin?”
“I thought I could. I wanted to try. I seemed to have a voice.”
“Yes, you have a voice, and with five years of diligent training under competent masters you could be successful, perhaps, but I assure you you are not ready for second tenor yet. You have a voice; you have presence; you have a noble and childlike confidence; you have a courage that is stupendous and even superhuman. There are all essentials and they are in your favor but there are other essentials in this great trade which you still lack. If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire them leave opera alone and try something which does not require training and experience. Go away now and try for a job in surgery.”

Writing is an art. It requires patient training, lots of practice, drafts and “workouts” and other sorts of exercises. It requires patient and careful attention to words, style, narrative. It’s a craft that has to be learned, that requires, according to Twain, “apprenticeship.” What would this study “under the masters” look like in this field?

Well, Twain isn’t talking about grad school. Maybe an MFA gives you a leg up, maybe not. But Twain knew nothing of graduate “creative writing” programs. As far as I can tell, he knew about “critique groups” only in the sense that he had others (notably his wife) read and critique and edit his work. But neither of these is what he had in mind. From what I gather of his life story, his own journalistic career was a major part of his training. Getting published in countless brief columns, reporting, working the beat in California. This went on for years. He then, as he describes it, fell into the lecture circuit at a time when it was thriving. Writing entertaining lectures that proved to be successful was, then, another kind of “honest training in the lower grades of the service.” His first break-out book, The Innocents Abroad, began as reportage from aboard a steamship touring the Holy Land. He talks, in that book, about how many passengers meant to keep a journal, and how many succeeded—him.

Something Twain doesn’t mention as clearly, that he might have taken for granted, and that’s certainly visible in his works, is his careful, patient reading of literature. For instance, he once found James Fenimore Cooper guilty of 114 of 115 possible literary offenses (“Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” North American Review, 1895). He praises the literary merits of Kipling’s works, discusses the stylistic excellence of certain biblical passages, weighs the literary merits of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, lampoons literary excesses in pop-fiction of his day. His patient, careful reading and attention to style are evident in what he produced.

So there you have it: Twain’s recipe for apprenticeship, for learning from the masters. With some natural ability, hard work, careful reading, willingness to learn, humble efforts at less-than-glamorous publication, he promises that “you could be successful, perhaps.” But, as he puts it (and I paraphrase):

If you can’t afford the time and labor necessary to acquire the essentials in this great trade that don’t result from natural ability, leave writing alone and try something which does not require training and experience.

Does that sting? Maybe you (and I) need a little antiseptic.


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