Old Enough For Fairy Tales Again

Old Enough For Fairy Tales Again

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How Do We Read A Tale?

Oh lucky the paper that can include, and does, articles about fairy tales. That they're written by A. S. Byatt makes the reading sweeter. I stumbled upon these articles after I had finished my first post-bypass fairy tale. They were different, these new tales, from the first ones I attempted. It's hard to explain, exactly. Maybe you could get a sense of the difference in reading them. There was something more inclusive and yet more liminal. I was both character but also audience, I was telling the tale and listening, al at the same time. And I was making them mine.

Byatt's article is titled "Love in Fairy Tales," but she starts with a conversation about how children, and how we adults, read fairy tales. She suggests that we do not read them for instruction, nor do we read them to identify with feeling. In Grimm's tales at least (Hans Christian Andersen is another case entirely), the heroines and heroes are interchangeable, as are their feelings. We know that good will triumph, evil punished. In such an ordered (if unreal) world, space is made for the terrible, the miraculous, the extravagant and the marvelous. (Makes me wonder if this is the secret to good magical realism as a writer, a world so ordered the reader knows how things must go and therefore relax and allow for the fantastical within the clearly denoted boundaries of life.) Maria Tartar, the Harvard expert on children's literature, "feels that children read such tales typically by siting themselves in the world of the tales as fascinated onlookers or audiences, not as part of the closed world of the story. Reading in this way is a particular and necessary pleasure, quite different from reading for instruction, or identification with feeling."

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, which is perhaps, one of the chief joys of blogging, and conversation for that matter. Yes, you can possess an agenda, stick to your talking points, aim for that certain outcome. Being diologic of nature though, that approach doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. If I know where I'm headed, if the path is delineated with no opportunity to wander, what is the point? It reminds me of cattle heading down the chute to slaughter. I know we're all headed to an inexorable end, but it's the path that our story lies.

Now Byatt believes there is a difference in fairy tales. Her assertion is that Grimm's tales possess a certain repetition and predictability. They were oral folk tales and so perhaps their predictability is not so surprising. The stories were never intended to lull children to sleep although we parents still insist on reading them before our children go to bed, filling their heads with archetypes, with monsters and angels, princesses and magical creatures. These tales are meant to fuel the imagination not to lull, to stupefy. Grimm's tales allow the reader to observe, to watch the tale unfold. There is little emotion to draw the reader in.

In contrast, Hans Christian Andersen's tales are full of emotion, his emotion. Byatt calls him an "emotional terrorist" and insists he hates children, as she asserts many writer's of children's tales do (e.g. E. B. White). She likes Andersen, thinks his tales are brilliant, engrossing. I think in Andersen's tales we can't quite sit on the edge and watch as we can with Grimm. All that emotion, the terrible price of the "Little Mermaid," of being something you are not, a sea creature walking on land, each step the sharp thrust of a knife. The ending no happily ever after, that's for sure. The Little Mermaid doesn't get her prince. She watches him find his happiness with another and allows that happiness, even at the cost of her life. And she does get a soul, or will one day, after she becomes a creature air, a sylph. Andersen demands we feel the pain of his characters, the loneliness of the Ugly Duckling, the heartache of the Little Mermaid, the steadfast love of the Little Tin Soldier, the freezing to death of the Poor Little Match Girl.

I will admit I read Grimm's tales, but I read and re-read the tales of Andersen. I didn't want to sit and observe. I wanted to live the highs and the more frequent lows and tis was the landscape I could do it in, the cold North, the deep emotions, the loss, the redemption, the qualified happy endings. It seemed to me this was life, or least life as I knew it. Happily ever after never really made sense.

Maybe this is the place I've found now that I'm back reading fairy tales again, at last. Maybe this what makes my new tales better (my opinion). There is the tale but there is also the emotion. They draw you in, ask you to live them, to be Red Riding Hood longing for her wolf, to be the Snow Queen, thawing, to prove hope is a thing with feathers, sharp teeth, and a taste for blood, why we can never quite decide whether it was a gift or a curse. How do we read a tale? That is the question, and there's no one right answer. We read them as they are written, told. Maybe we read them as we need to, sometimes observer, sometimes completely involved. I'll keep pondering it and keep you posted. You too.

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