Saturday, June 27, 2009

Response to Erzebet: A Coda

Erzebet's question on the continuing allure of folklore and fairy tales, and the Bacchilegga quote in the previous post about the mutual influence of the oral and literary on and through fairy tales, sent me to my bookshelves for some examples. Anderson and Hesse, Tieck and von Eichendorff, Collodi and Calvino, Marguerite Yourcenar, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Tanith Lee, Patricia McKillip, Marina Warner, Jeanette Winterson...all obvious choices as exemplars of mastery of the literary form.

I remembered Erich Fried, whose poems--dealing with very modern themes in Germany in the decades after 1945-- often include allusions to fairytales: "The Tree Princess Speaks," "The Three Questions," "The Helpful Birds," "The Elf-Hill."

Here's Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni opening her The Palace of Illusions, a luscious retelling of the Mahabharata from the princess Panchaali's perspective:

"Through the long, lonely years of my childhood, when my father's palace seemed to tighten its grip around me until I couldn't breathe, I would go to my nurse and ask for a story. And though she knew many wondrous and edifying tales, the one I made her tell me over and over was the story of my birth."

And Aminatta Forna from her Ancestor Stones, drawing on her childhood in Sierre Leone:

"Hali! What story shall I tell? The story of how it really was, or the one you want to hear? I shall start with my name, but that is not as easy as you think. I have been known by many names. [...] ...we never change the names that tell the world who we are. The names we are called by, yes. These ones may change."

And here's Rabih Alameddine, starting his tale of modern-day Lebanon The Hakawati (which means "The Storyteller"), braiding the distant past with the immediate present:

"Listen. Allow me to be your god. Let me take you on a journey beyond imagining. Let me tell you a story.

A long, long time ago, an emir lived in a distant land, in a beautiful city, a green city with many trees and exquisite gurgling fountains whose sound lulled the citizens to sleep at night. Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son."

"A long, long time ago..." The unspecified, translucent, cyclical time of fairy tale...I sometimes picture it as the cigar-smoke that a brandy drinker blows into the snifter, drifting slowly inside the glass, swirling within the curved sides above the sweet-stinging liquor.... sometimes I picture it the way Margaret Atwood does in the third paragraph of her novel Cat's Eye:

"But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another. You don't look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away."

Even when an author writes a "modern, realistic" novel, the "long ago" of fairytale is the default, the foil implicated, implied and always to be defined against, as in the opening of Joyce Carol Oates's You Must Remember This:

"Not once upon a time but a few years ago. Last year. Last week. Last Thursday. On Union Street, on Cadboro, up in the Decker project, up behind the high school in that alley. In Kilbirnie Park. Out by the reservoir. In the middle of the night, at six in the morning. In broad daylight."

Oates understands the power of fairy tale, framing her novel of family life in an industrial town in 1950s upstate New York as not-a-fairy tale ("don't think of an elephant"), thus triggering for the reader all the tropes known from before you could read on your own, the tropes learned as you listened to fairy tales. The novel's next paragraph includes rumours of abortion, incest, exile, infanticide and mass murder by a modern-day Blue Beard, a runaway girl, coerced sex, torture, a "living skeleton"....

The endless, horrified fascination with fairytale in a nutshell: because werewolves really do roam the woods, Bluebeards do build and populate bloody chambers, witches test for plumpness on children's fingers, princes bleed to death on thorn-trees.

No comments: