Fairytales and Modern Storytelling

fairytale study

This is my collection of fairytale links. I’m interested in fairytales from a writing perspective — how do fairytales help us to create new, contemporary stories?

TWO OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENTS OF FAIRYTALES

  1. the “serene, anonymous” voice in which it’s told
  2. the “conventional, stock figures” who inhabit it.

This is according to American poet James Merrill , as described at the opening of “The Book of Ephraim”.

THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CERTAIN FAIRYTALES

A lot of fairytales are harrowing. Nothing written fresh today would get published and heavily marketed for children if it included cannibalism and other child abuse. Yet many of us still read Hansel and Gretel to our children before bedtime. Perhaps my real question is: Why are popular fairytales so awful, and why are they still here?

Conservative Ethics

Fairytales do not become mythic unless they are in almost perfect accord with the underlying principles of how the male members of society seek to arrange object relations to satisfy their wants and needs.

— Jack Zipes

The ethics of a fairytale are not completely static; they do evolve somewhat with the times.

As they spread, folktales evolve like biological species, from The Conversation

Pacing

Celerity: swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more. The best tales are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t: in Rudyard Kipling’s image, fires that blaze brightly because all the ashes have been raked out.

The opening of a tale, for example. All we need is the word ‘Once . . .’ and we’re off

[…]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if you’re travelling light; so none of the information you’d look for in a modern work of fiction – names, appearances, background, social context, etc – is present.

Philip Pullman

Comfort

Modern publishers know how most picturebooks are read: at night, by parents, to put their children to sleep. Harrowing as the content may be, a home-away-from home structure is considered essential for putting young kids to sleep, and fairytales provide just that. (At least, the enduring ones that get published over and over again.)

FAIRYTALE ANALYSIS AT THIS BLOG

 

MODERN FAIRYTALES

Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.

–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature

Matchless by Gregory Maguire

Matchless Gregory McGuire book

Matchless is a fractured fairytale by Gregory Maguire based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Matchless makes for an interesting case study in storytelling.

First, the brief would have been to create a story for ‘all ages’ — for regular NPR listeners to enjoy with their kids. This ain’t easy. How is it done?

Second, Gregory McGuire has invented his own type of fairytale logic. What can a storyteller get away with?

Third, Matchless is a perfect example of techniques such as empathy for a main character, ‘the overview effect’ and linking an animal symbolically to a character.

Everyone can read along with this one because the entire text is available online. NPR release one every year. This ‘re-illumination’* of The Little Match Girl was also turned into a book. It’s binding suggests it will be mostly purchased as gifts. I was given a copy, and it may interest you to know, I was given this book because my friend, a huge McGuire fan, couldn’t stand this one. Too damn depressing, she said. The world’s biggest Wicked fan said that.

*Re-ilumination is McGuire’s word. (I can see why one might reject ‘fractured’. Often, these new fairytales are fixing something about the story that now seems broken.)

For the printed book, McGuire sketched his own illustrations. This is an illustrated short story rather than a picture book. The graphic design of the book allows for a lot of blank space (green, rather than white). There are few words on each page of text — sometimes a single sentence. The book is smaller than average size, to reflect the miniature world I mention below, and also, probably, so it can be crammed into a stocking.

STORYWORLD OF MATCHLESS

The Pedersens lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smoke house on an island in the harbor. From their threshold Frederik looked across the water to the prosperous city on the mainland. The town was bedecked with necklaces of evergreen. Setting out across the low stone causeway that joined island to mainland, Frederik caught a whiff of a goose roasting for a holiday luncheon.

Matchless: A Christmas Story

Especially in stories about death, writers love islands. There are many examples; just yesterday I wrote about I Kill Giants, so I won’t go into the death/island connection again with Matchless.

Because this is a fishing village, birds are hovering around — seagulls, scavenging. Frederik has a special connection with these scavengers — he himself is a bit of a collector, scavenging the wooden spools when thread’s used up and eventually, the ultimate scavenge: the fateful slipper. Birds are also associated with death in stories — in films, a cut to birds flying away is very often symbolic of death. Some birds are so closely associated with death that there can be no other reading — I’m thinking of ravens. Seagulls are known for their scavenging, though. Frederik = a seagull, for narrative purposes. But why? Because seagulls also live by scavenging on the fringe of society, including on dead things sometimes. While seagulls are generally considered annoying — most of us encounter them only when we’re trying to enjoy a picnic — Frederik, too, is linked to death in this story. The link isn’t strong, but it’s there for those who look, adding an extra dimension. This is the kind of depth which makes this a story with a dual audience. (Children and adults alike.)

McGuire changed New Year to Christmas, but this may simply be because he was contracted to write a Christmas story. He could just as easily have kept it New Year.

The most interesting thing about this storyworld is the mise en abyme effect, and use of the miniature in storytelling. (See below.) Continue reading “Matchless by Gregory Maguire”

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

To a modern audience, The Little Match Girl is unbearably tragic. Perhaps, like me, you vividly recall reading your version of this story as a young kid and being profoundly affected. For me, it was probably the first time I considered the possibility of childhood death.

Hans Christian Andersen was commissioned to write a story based on a woodcut. This woodcut illustration was by painter Johan Thomas Lundbye and was of a poor girl selling matches, dressed in rags. It was widely recognised in Denmark at the time and appeared in calendars with a caption encouraging people to give to the poor. Lundbye himself died at the age of 29, during the Three Years War in Denmark but it’s not clear whether he was accidentally shot or whether he took his own life.

STORYWORLD OF THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL

For the Victorians, child death was all around them. These days when a young life ends we focus on all the years lost. But the Victorian mindset was a little different. Sad as death inevitably still was, the focus was not on the years wasted but on the opportunities presented when one is able to fly up to heaven with their childhood innocence intact.

Alison Lurie writes not of The Little Match Girl but of Peter Pan when she talks about the Victorian ideology of childhood innocence, but it applies equally to the mindset of Hans Christian Andersen:

In every society, every century, some time of life seems to embody current cultural ideals and have superior prestige. In ancient China, we are told, the greatest honor was given to old age; America in the 1960s admired teenagers, attributing to them boundless energy, political altruism, and a polymorphously joyous sensuality.

The Victorians, on the other hand, preferred children who had not yet reached puberty. The natural innocents of Blake and Wordsworth reappeared in middlebrow versions in hundreds of nineteenth-century stories and poems, always uncannily good and sensitive, with an angelic beauty and charm that often move the angels to carry them off. But the early death of these children was not felt as wholly tragic, for if they never became adults they would escape worldly sin and suffering; they would remain forever pure and happy.

Don’t Tell The Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature

How do we really know this is set in Victorian times, though? That is the assumption, because Hans Christian Andersen lived during this time, and the sensibilities line up. But this is a more timeless story than that, and others adapting this tale have chosen a variety of different eras and places for the story. Another common era for setting this story is the early 20th century, sometimes in an American city, sometimes in London. Continue reading “The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen”

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES

Although this is an original tale published by Hans Christian Andersen rather than one based on the oral tradition, Andersen still borrows a lot from the oral tradition. So it feels almost like it might have been an older tale.

No coincidence there — The Emperor’s New Clothes is quite similar to

Libro de los ejemplos (or El Conde Lucanor, 1335), a medieval Spanish collection of fifty-one cautionary tales with various sources such as Aesop and other classical writers and Persian folktales, by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (1282–1348). Andersen did not know the Spanish original but read the tale in a German translation titled “So ist der Lauf der Welt”.

Wikipedia

 

The Emperor’s New Clothes has been translated into over 100 languages, inspired lots of other stories, become a metaphor for lack of substance, and is known around the world.

STORYWORLD

This tale along with:

  • The Nightingale
  • The Bell
  • The Snow Queen

is about the administrative changes taking place in Denmark 1820s-30s. This is the era in which Denmark put an end to aristocratic privilege. As Maria Tatar writes, “older bureaucrats, in an effort to retain their positions, joined forces with their younger colleagues in the reform movements sweeping Europe.” All of these stories mock the grandiose titles given to ordinary people — titles designed entirely to elevate their position.

Maria Tatar speculates that Andersen himself was annoyed with all of this hierarchy because he was never truly accepted. He wasn’t so removed that he refused the honors bestowed upon him, however. Andersen wasn’t exactly a good-looking chap, either, and this may explain partly why he rejected all of this pomp and ceremony.

THE CHARACTER OF EMPEROR

My childhood versions of this tale all depict a very full-bodied figure, and I had therefore remembered the image of a man who lies around all day eating food brought to him by servants. (Because in fairy tales we are lead to believe that obesity correlates 1:1 with greed and sloth.) But now that I look at other more diverse depictions of the Emperor, I see that not all illustrators have drawn him as such. The image below, illustrated by Harry Clarke around the 1920s, depict a man described by Maria Tatar as ‘effete’.  This is by any standards a ‘feminine’ (or effeminate) pose, subconsciously linking narcissism with the superficiality of femininity.

Emperor admires himself Harry Clarke
by Harry Clarke
by Harry Clarke
by Harry Clarke
Beverlie Manson - 1970s
by Beverlie Manson – 1970s
Emperor Joyce Mercer
by Joyce Mercer

The latter half of the twentieth century, gives us more obese Emperors, and I can only guess at the cultural reasons for this. Either way: take your pick of subtle messages of censure. The vices embodied by the Emperor are most often either tied to femme phobic weaknesses or to obesity and overweight.

by Vladimir Panov Russia, 1983
by Vladimir Panov Russia, 1983

However, this isn’t always the case. Here we have a regular guy:

Margaret W. Tarrant c1920
Margaret W. Tarrant c1920

The fact is, it is so much fun for illustrators to ham up the femininity and ostentatiousness of this unpleasant and foolish character.

Emperor drinking tea A. Kashkurevich, 1984

Modern illustrations often seem to be a parody of gay masculinity. But this was written in an age when homosexuality was invisible. I believe Andersen was aiming simply for a ‘fop’:

Fop became a pejorative term for a foolish man excessively concerned with his appearance and clothes in 17th-century England. Some of the very many similar alternative terms are: “coxcomb”, fribble,”popinjay” (meaning “parrot”), fashion-monger, and “ninny”. “Macaroni” was another term, of the 18th century, more specifically concerned with fashion.

A modern-day fop may also be a reference to a foolish person who is excessively concerned about his clothing, luxuries, minor details, refined language and leisurely hobbies. He is generally incapable of engaging in conversations, activities or thoughts without the idealism of aesthetics or pleasures.

The word “fop” is first recorded in 1440, and for several centuries just meant a fool of any kind.

Wikipedia

The fop is more related to the modern goth (for its shared androgyny) than to gay subculture. It is still interesting, however, that ‘androgyny’ seems to mean affectation of feminine body language in so many cases, rather than the other way around — probably because male body language is the ‘normal’, unmarked version, and because the Emperor is himself male, so in order to appear different and interesting he needs to behave in marked fashion in the illustrations.

We tend to modify our body language according to our dress. There are numerous studies about how girls’ clothing stops them from running around as much as same-aged boys, for example. Numerous illustrations of an effete Emperor lead me to wonder if the ostentatious masculine fashions of the early 1800s indeed lead to body language we would now describe as effeminate, or if those men, even dressed in their high heels and wigs and plastered in make-up, behaved just as manly men behave today, striding along with large steps, closing doors noisily behind them, man-spreading on horse-drawn carts.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

The Emperor has a number of weaknesses:

Psychological — he needs to be surrounded by sycophants and adored by the public. He is shallow, possibly narcissistic. Easily duped.

Moral — he judges others’ competence based on what they look like.

DESIRE

He wants to look lovely in the eyes of his public and thereby win their respect.

OPPONENT

The two swindlers, who are classic tricksters of the common fairytale archetype. These swindlers are much smarter than anyone in the town.

PLAN

The Emperor plans to have two tailors make the most magnificent garment so he can parade in front of all his people.

A. Kashkurevich, 1984
A. Kashkurevich, 1984

BATTLE

The battle scene is the parade itself, when the reality of the nakedness is up against the clear-eyed innocence of a child.

SELF-REVELATION

The child has a complete revelation and this spreads throughout the crowd.

George G. Harrap, 1932
George G. Harrap, 1932

There is a partial self-revelation on the part of the Emperor when he sees people whispering that he is naked.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The Emperor continues on anyway, because he has no choice.

Edmund Dulac
Edmund Dulac
A. Kashkurevich, 1984
A. Kashkurevich, 1984

Emperor's New Clothes China stamp

Monro S. Orr

Emperor Michael Hague 10.55.23 AM

Have you ever wondered what happened to the town after that, though? I wonder if the Emperor continued to rule the land with quite the same authority as he had before. For those who would like to know what the new equilibrium is like, we can go to the original Spanish version. In this story, the king is forced to admit his foolishness.