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.

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