Friday, June 26, 2009

Response to Erzebet: Fairy Tales

Erzebet's Question to Lobster & Canary:

When left to my own devices, my mind will always turn to my first literary love. In this jaded day and age, one might think that fairy tales are too quaint to be much of a force in the literary world, and yet they flourish around us. What is it about fairy tales that give them their eternal allure?

Lobster & Canary's Response:

I too turn constantly back to folktales and their literary cousins-- they're the aquifer feeding the lake of story. Many elements give fairy tales their evergreen allure; let me offer comments on just two: the form's plasticity, and its focus on the need to conquer the threat of intimate violence.

The fairy tale's deceptively simplistic plots, tropes and characterizations allow for a vast array of narrative twists and turns and even diametrically opposed outcomes upon each re-telling. Ironically, it seems that the more specific the detail, the more complex the characterization, the more mimetic the narrative altogether, the smaller the range of plausible interpretations a story can bear. Like the trickster, the hame-shifter, and the hob-trot, the fairy tale straddles boundaries, appears one way at dusk and another at dawn, at home everywhere while refusing categorization (pace Aarne & Thompson, and Propp).

As Cristina Bacchilega writes in Postmodern Fairytales: Gender and Narrative Strategies (p.3, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999):

"As a 'borderline' or traditional genre, it [fairytale] bears the traces of orality, folkloric tradition, and socio-cultural performance, even when it is edited as literature for children or it is marketed with little respect for its history and materiality. And conversely, even when it claims to be folklore, the fairytale is shaped by literary traditions with different social uses and users."

Fairytales deal above all with the most primal and horrific acts of familial and sexual violence. Fairytales force us to recognize and confront the Troll Within, the Witch lurking in our hearts, the Ogre housed within our marrow. I agree with Jack Zipes, when he answers the question about the enduring popularity of Little Red Riding Hood, this way:

"Simply put, because it raises issues about gender identity, sexuality, violence, and the civilizing process in a unique and succinct symbolic form that children and adults can understand on different levels" (p. 343, The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1993).

(See also Karen Rowe's pathbreaking essays: "Feminism and Fairy Tales," Women's Studies 6-1979, and "To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairy Tales," in Fairy Tales and Society, ed. by R.Bottigheimer, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).

Likewise, Maria Tatar reminds us that fairytales-- far from being sweet and harmless-- are stark in their portrayal of horror: abandonment, cannibalism, rape, mutilation, incest, murder (see her The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, 2nd. ed., Princeton University Press, 2003). Their unflinching focus on depravity, their refusal to ignore the bestial side of human behavior, are precisely what give fairy tales their moral power, is the source of their perennial appeal. That, and the fact that fairy tales show how humans can defeat our worst natures, can civilize ourselves. Yes, the fairytale insists on a happy ending but only after the hero or heroine overcomes genuine pain and danger.

Hence the power of the eerie, blade-within-velveteen beauty in Angela Carter's fairytales, and of Margo Lanagan's gruesome, viscerally demanding "The Goosle" (one of the most harrowing but authentic stories I have ever read). Hence the success of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, telling the still-raw story of Spain's Civil War through the lense of the classic three tasks to gain the fairy-throne, sparing no wrenching detail of death and torture, recalling Callot's "Miseries of War" and Goya's "Disasters of War," whose peasant victims (and perpetrators) told the folktales that in turn influenced del Toro and del Toro's audience. Hence the glamour cast by the minatory whisper of Paula Bohince's "Disappearance" in The Fairy Tale Review's Green Issue:

"Crows dissipate when I shoo them
only to reappear, in minutes,
silent and silky as children touched and lurking
at the fringe, lingering there
outside the woods' honeyed doorway.

hurt spiraling through each
bramble and leaf where the raspberries live.

Some berries are too tender
for the wrestling of crows and children, their
limitless hunger. Thus the fruit
plunges heavily downward, and the children
also, into love's rabbit hole."

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