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Once upon a time . . .

I’ve been reading Maria Tatar’s Annotated Brothers Grimm, which takes a number of the Grimm’s tales and explores their various incarnations, histories and interpretations. It’s a fascinating book in its own right (and a strikingly beautiful one, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane and George Cruikshank, amongst others) but one of the highlights is A.S. Byatt’s introduction.

Of course Byatt’s written about fairy tales before, as well as rewriting a few, and exploring the social context and cost of such tales and their celebration in her remarkable 2009 novel, The Children’s Book. But her introduction to the Tatar is particularly interesting, not least because of its invocation of the work of Max Lüthi:

“The best single description I know of the world of the fairy tale is that of Max Lüthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects, and incidents, all of which are isolated and nonetheless interconnected, in a kind of web of two-dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.”

I assume the book Byatt’s referring to is Lüthi’s The European Folktale: Form and Nature, which explores this precise quality, and which is itself a pretty remarkable document. But whether it is or not, she’s right: along with the sense that they are accessing something dreamlike and below the level of language, much of the unsettling (and beguiling) power of fairy tales arises from their weird inversion of the normal processes of fate and coincidence. Indeed I’d go so far as to suggest that this inversion is effective at least in part because it reminds us of how the world must appear to children, for whom everything is full of mystery and hidden meaning, and for whom adults must seem both purposeful and frighteningly capricious.

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  1. Byatt’s paraphrase of Luthi explains eloquently why I am interested in fairy tales: because they are somehow simultaneously abstract and concrete. Also relevant, perhaps, is the following comment by Will Self on Roald Dahl:

    ‘[T]here are big white spaces in Dahl-world where any realistic detailing might well be shaded in by a lesser writer; and again, in common with [Quentin] Blake’s vision, Dahl-world is at once lurid and curiously ill-defined. The passions are strong and clear – fear, hatred, avarice, love, greed (especially for sugar) – but they are played out against a backdrop that is only wonkily apprehended.
    Dahl mimicked to perfection a believable child’s-eye view, that, looking up from below, sees the adult realm as foreshortened, and adult foibles as grossly elongated.’

    What, then, if you remove from this equation the assumption that fairy tales cannot or should not deal with ‘adult’ subject matter (sexuality, violence, etc.), which is of course historically nonsense anyway? What happens to a fictional universe built on these rules, but open to invasion and contamination by ‘fear, hatred, avarice, love, greed’ in all their possible manifestations?

    This is related to a much broader point: that the voice of a text is constituted not only by its particular idiom, but by what the text does not say, what it leaves out, because, in any fictional world, certain things are self-evident, irrelevant, or boring, and their absence is all the more compelling when they would be regarded as absolutely necessary in another text. For example, most fairy tales are completely uninterested in what their protagonists look like (except in terms so generic as to be deliberately meaningless: ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, etc.). They are similarly indifferent to topography and geography, so you can stick a red pen through all those painstaking evocations of nature, weather, place, and layout (i.e. of buildings) so beloved of nineteenth-century realist fiction.

    February 26, 2010
  2. p.s. I have this book on order already, so am looking forward to reading it.

    I might also recommend the chapter on eighteenth-century French folk tales in Robert Darnton’s ‘The Great Cat Massacre’, which underlines how very brutal and unfamiliar the world they describe is.

    Calvino did a great introduction for the Italian equivalent of the Oxford Guide to Eng. Lit. on Italian folk tales (drawing on his experience of adapting dozens of them for his own edition), but I don’t think it’s available in English, unfortunately.

    February 26, 2010

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