The Strange, Beautiful, Subterranean Power of Fairy Tales:
A Forum Moderated by Kate Bernheimer
We asked Kate Bernheimer—author of a trilogy of brilliantly subversive tales, fairy-tale anthologist and champion-in-chief of the numinous world of Once Upon a Time, and founder and editor of Fairy Tale Review, why fairy tales deserve more respect. She answered—and then gathered celebrated writers Kevin Brockmeier, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Timothy Schaffert, and Maria Tatar to tell us more.
Illustration by Nicoletta Ceccoli
Last year, Polish Radio called for donations of fairy-tale books to be sent to a boy in a hospital, who had eaten a poisonous mushroom. He lay in a coma after a liver transplant. The government felt that if someone read fairy tales to him, he might gather the courage to live. “Fairy tales for Tomek should be relatively short and have a happy ending,” the press release read. I cannot seem to find information about whether poor Tomek is still alive. If not, his ending is more Hans Christian Andersen than Disney; either way, it sounds like a real fairy tale. In fact, the mushrooms little Tomek had eaten had been “accidentally fed to him by his own mother.” So fairy-tale like in its terror!
When the most recent anthology I edited, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, came out last fall, there was a controversial discussion online in which a bookstore browser—who admitted to not reading the book—accused me of seeking, through fairy tales, to “glamorize cannibalism” for an unsuspecting generation of very young readers. I didn’t mind—her alarm indicated the power of language on hand in these stories. The book’s title comes from the dark tale “The Juniper Tree,” in which a mother kills her son and cooks him for supper. Through revisions over the years, as fairy tales began to be marketed to children, the mother is turned into a stepmother, as if a non-biological parent killing a son would be less horrifying somehow. The result is a kind of abstraction; this once-removed tormenter motif, which I too employ as a writer, is echoed in literature across the ages, as in “The New Mother,” Lucy Lane Clifford’s genius and little-read Victorian story.
You could say that “The Juniper Tree” ends happily. Eventually, a bird sings the truth at the family supper:
My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet tweet, what a fine bird am I!
After hearing the song exposing her crime over and over, the stepmother finally jumps to her feet. "I feel as if the world were coming to an end,” she says. She goes outside to look for the bird, who crushes her to death with a millstone. The last passage is this: “Smoke, flames, and fire were rising from the place, and when that was over, the little brother was standing there, and he took his father and Marlene by the hand, and all three were very happy, and they went into the house, sat down at the table, and ate.”
If this story were read to little Tomek, would it provide him with comfort? Perhaps! Does the fairy tale ending make the story non-literary? Decidedly, no. J. R. R. Tolkien, in his wonderful essay “On Fairy-Stories,” writes that the happy ending of the fairy tale is vastly underrated as one of the most important techniques in literature. He coined the phrase eucatastrophe for their sublime consolations, which provide “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” Misunderstood as simplistic, fairy tale endings do not deny sadness or failure.
The eucatastrope, like so many other aspects of fairy tales, avoids binary thinking. Other ways fairy tales often do this: Belief is always already suspended. The real is unreal; the unreal is real. Logic follows an intuitive path. Terror and wonder are deep, but the stories are depthless, abstract. I’m often asked “what is a fairy tale?” But fairy tales cannot be strictly defined; they are possibility spaces. As such they can liberate writers and readers. It’s no coincidence Anne Frank avidly wrote fairy tales in the Secret Annexe.
For these stories—not the cliché idea of them, which is a fiction—do not flinch from the hard facts of life; and through diverse techniques, temporarily free us from the reality trap of representation (even sometimes using representational style to do it). Child abandonment, incest, famine, rape, identity theft, spousal abuse, madness, and plague: These are but some of the themes that nourish the tales, told through abstraction, depthlessness, everyday magic, and intuitive logic. These techniques leave room for the reader and are endlessly variable, too; a fairy tale has a fairy-tale affect—it is not defined by a closed set of what makes one example the Best or the Only.
The kind of sensitivity to beauty and terror that permeates fairy tales—the very stories that often introduce writers to the reading sublime—should motivate us to read ethically, to be inclusive, and kind. And yet, sad to say, the gatekeepers of capital-L literature have been historically unkind to the tradition of fairy tales. Despite their infiltration of all literature (via resistance or incorporation), fairy tales have been expressly excluded from that high-minded category, and have been ever since the rise of the novel. (As just one example, the National Book Foundation’s guidelines for the National Book Awards include the line “collections and/or retellings of folk-tales, myth, and fairytales are not eligible.” This is the rule; the practice reveals a slightly different story, as evidenced by John Updike’s 1964 win for The Centaur.)
The following conversation took place over email, among a few of the hundreds of writers who love and are inspired by fairy tales. I believe fairy tales still “rank next to the Bible in their importance” as a literary influence, as W. H. Auden said in another war time. It is my humble hope that this conversation will turn readers back to old fairy tales as a lens onto new letters; and will cease the frequently seen dismissal of any book as “merely a fairy tale.” The history of fairy tales contains multitudes; and there is no secret code: you just open the pages, and step right in.
Five Writers on the Power Fairy Tales:
A Conversation with Kate Bernheimer, Kevin Brockmeier, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Timothy Schaffert, and Maria Tatar
Kate Bernheimer: Let’s begin by speaking to the influence fairy tales have had on our work.
Kevin Brockmeier: First of all, dear Kate, Sarah, Timothy, and Maria, I found a video from the Polish TVN News and Services Agency, broadcast on December 22, 2010, about Tomek and his return home for Christmas. "His body is functioning normally," the children's surgery consultant is quoted as saying, which means, I think, that we can anticipate a happy ending.
All right, then. Now that we can all breathe a little easier: fairy tales.
Recently, I was asked to produce a list of the book I found most valuable at each year of my life. With the help of a journal my mother kept about me when I was little, I realized how long-lasting my love for fairy tales has been. My favorite book at age one: Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes, illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton; at age four: a Walt Disney Studios edition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; at age seventeen: Dave Louapre and Dan Sweetman's Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children; at age twenty seven: Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees; at age twenty nine: A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle; and just last year: The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra; which is to say, one book after another that seems to emerge from the fairy-tale tradition, intimating that our lives might crack open at any moment to reveal the otherworldly or the impossible. I suspect that the most durable influence fairy tales have had on my work is providing me with exactly that sense—a regard for the ten-thousand ways the familiar encases the strange—along with an instinct that stories should construct and attempt to abide by a set of rules—indeed, a feeling that existence itself offers various basic ground rules, but that those rules could change suddenly, right under our feet, and the universe would be no more or less curious, wondrous, or outlandish than it already is.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: Kevin, thank you so much for suggesting a happy ending to Tomek’s story.
A few weeks ago I was slowly floating along “Fairy Tale Brook,” the calmest, sleepiest ride at Legoland: A plastic boat winds through a miniature forest populated by huge animatronic versions of Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin, built entirely out of Lego. They were pretty strange. But this forest was full of the most beautiful mushrooms! Real ones. All different kinds and colors. They seemed to have sprung up by accident there in the theme park.
I started telling this story out of sympathy for Tomek’s mother: the surprise and pleasure I felt upon discovering these mushrooms, the sudden need to share that pleasure in some way with my child (who got irritated when I kept pointing them out to her). But, of course, the story is also a metaphor—which I hadn’t realized until I began telling it—for the ways in which fairy tales have endured: both in their highly popularized forms and also in their untended, subterranean varieties. I love them almost equally. And I love how even the most banal or sanitized version of a fairy tale still contains within it the spore of some delicious-looking and possibly dangerous mushrooms.
Although I did read (over and over again) Walter Crane’s book of fairy tales, and Charles Perrault and George McDonald when I was a child, I think the fairy tales that are the most deeply embedded within me and my work are the stories I learned before I was literate, before the world became legible to me. Danny Kaye’s recording of Hans Christian Andersen stories—I think I must have listened to that a lot because I can still hear the chorus in my head: “Thumbelina, Thumbelina, tiny little thing. Thumbelina, dance! Thumbelina, sing!” And Walt Disney’s Snow White, which I was passionate about. Her sweet, wobbly voice echoing inside the wishing well! The record cover opened up and had pictures from the movie inside. I’m sure it was a companion product to the book that Kevin loved as a child. The original 1933 film was rereleased in 1976, when we were both four years old.
Timothy Schaffert: I was a morbid child and I was attracted to the horror of the tales—it’s because of this, I suspect, that my fiction skews dark. A fairy tale, for me, didn’t end with the happy ending; it ended before, at its most brutal moment. That’s where my imagination was arrested. I suspect I did read beyond those moments, but probably only to rush forward seeking more horror; once I learned that everyone lived happily ever after, I rushed backward in the stories to dwell on grimmer circumstances. But it wasn’t a gleefully gruesome instinct; I didn’t rip the wings off flies or burn ants with magnifying glasses. I was just mesmerized and curious, and perhaps sought some kind of comfort in the witches and wolves, and in the depiction of a child eaten, or prince blinded, or a girl stopped, followed, and snatched by the hair. I was less interested in the survival than in the awful thing survived. In the conclusions, I could see too much the invention of the author. The happy endings were technique, mechanics, fiction. The horrors were real. Once these children had gotten into these various dire predicaments, it was absurd to think there would possibly be a manner of escape, no matter how clever someone like Gretel might be. Once a child is devoured, there’s no getting out of the wolf’s gut.
Maria Tatar: It was Roger Scruton who told us that the “consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.” And I feel sure that those fairy tales sent to Tomek, along with all the love channeled through them, had a real role in helping him survive the poisonous mushrooms. Kate: That story is a miniature fairy tale in and of itself (with a wonderful intertextual reference to The Story of Babar, in which the King of the elephants eats a bad mushroom, becomes ill, and dies).
I understand Timothy’s line of reasoning about how horror trumps survival, especially since I see fairy tales as staging the worst-case-possible scenario—the “awful thing”—for children. What if? What would you do if? What would happen if? Children love fairy tales precisely because they speak the language of pain, suffering, loss, and torture with a candor they often do not encounter in real life. As a child, I was hooked by the terror for sure. And I read voraciously, in the same way that I was also mesmerized by the images of people suffering from terrible diseases in the pages of JAMA, the professional medical journal that piled up over the years in my parents’ bedroom.
But I want to put in a word for survival. I was always amazed that the American Medical Association never told its readers the stories behind the photographs. How did the woman in that image survive those terrible rashes on her thighs and how did that man manage with the horrifyingly large boil on his cheek? Fairy tales give us the old cliché about the triumph of hope over adversity, in terms marked by excess in its most grotesque forms. You can survive, even if your stepmother tries to kill you, and you can outwit all those other monsters in the woods. But you need brains and courage to navigate your way through the trouble, and sometimes playing the innocent is precisely what will enable you to get home again.
Kate Bernheimer: Maria, I love the image of you imagining back-stories for medical examples in JAMA as a kid. I invented back-stories for numbers. When I was supposed to memorize multiplication tables, I made characters: Seven was mean, six was easily hurt, three was a particularly suspicious fellow, four was friendly, and so forth. This made it hard to do multiplication because seven didn’t like to mix with four, etc., but it made it easy to write fairy tales—which is what my brain more easily did. I specifically remember one that began, “Once there was a family of miniature girls who were numbers”—I wish I still had a copy of it. I am fairly sure it was influenced by an awareness about concentration camp victims being assigned numbers, and influenced by magical books like The Borrowers, and tales like “Thumbelina.”
Somehow, living in stories allowed me more courage than I could have outside of books, in the land of knowledge and people. “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation”—that’s a lovely quotation. A character does not survive in a fairy tale because he or she hopes to survive: The character survives by perfectly navigating a story’s precise and mysterious hurdles. (This could mean sitting in a world beneath this world for years with an ogre, but that isn’t passive: It is a means to survival when there is no other escape.) The harmonious world of a fairy tale is often misunderstood as static.
Kevin, your current book, The Illumination, is about people in pain, whose pain is actually illuminated. There’s something harmonious about that idea that seems from a fairy tale. Have you ever read the fairy tale “The Light Princess” by George MacDonald? It is often read alone but appears as a sort of “riddle story” inside a little-read novel by MacDonald called Adela Cathcart, about a depressed girl. The Light Princess is cursed with these lines: “Light of spirit by my charms/light of body every part.” She has no gravity and cannot feel sadness.
Kevin Brokmeier: How well I remember, Sarah, the 1976 rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the very first movie I saw in a theater. I fell madly in love with the Princess (a photograph from that year, taken at Disney World, shows me kissing her on the cheek), and afterward, every night for months, when I recited the Lord's Prayer and said, "God deliver us from evil," I would picture the Queen disguised as an old hag, holding her poison apple above its brew.
Kate, I'm not familiar with "The Light Princess," though I admire a much more recent fairy tale by Richard Kennedy called "The Dark Princess," about a character who can feel sadness but cannot feel love: "It is a bad sadness to believe that there is no love in the world, and people have hanged themselves for less gloomy discoveries." I wonder if Kennedy had the MacDonald story in mind when he wrote his own investigation of sorrow and magic.
The Illumination arose out of a desire—to borrow Timothy's terminology, and Maria's—to look squarely at "the awful thing"; to speak, with candor, "the language of pain, suffering, loss, and torture." The novel emerged from a long period of ill health. One day I was thinking about the various forms of pain and illness people are forced to endure, wondering what all that suffering could possibly be good for, and found myself conducting a thought experiment: What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us? Moreover, what if our pain was what made us beautiful to God? I had an image of someone literally glowing with his injuries. This simple equation, of pain with light, gave birth to the book.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: I was really struck by the form that Kevin's thought experiment took: "What if our pain was what made us beautiful to God?" That question, along with Maria's reflections on consolation and survival, is making me think about the spiritual potential of fairy tales. They're so often discussed in terms of their morality, as didactic tools for instilling "good" behavior in children—but given their lasting impact on me, I can't help but wonder about the ways in which they have shaped my spiritual imagination (probably much more profoundly, in fact, than the Bible stories I was introduced to at around the same age). To be fair, I associated all of those Old Testament stories with the graham-crackery smell of my Sunday school classroom and the beige-tinted illustrations in my Children's Bible, while fairy tales always offered far more glamour and much better pictures. And fairy tales, with their remote villages and dark forests and talking animals, always seemed faintly pagan, or at least primeval—and for that reason very appealing to me. Yet despite, or maybe because of, this darkly glamorous quality, they were powerful in forming my understanding of suffering, forgiveness, grace, and the transformative power of faith or love.
Kate, "The Light Princess" is my favorite George MacDonald tale—in one of the first short stories I ever wrote, I tried to bring together "The Light Princess" and Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation," and the result was a story about a sex triangle unfolding inside an apartment while a skinhead riot is happening outside. A terrible thing to do to that wonderful tale! I was sixteen and full of undirected enthusiasm.
Timothy Schaffert: Sarah, I’m glad you brought up the illustrations in children’s religious materials; how did religious publishers manage to so frequently commission work so very artless, and so without character? In Sunday school classes, I couldn’t turn the page fast enough. Was there an institutional worry that if the art was too sublime, we’d be distracted from God’s message? But in so many churches, regardless of the sect, there’s a perpetual conflict between the beauty of story (of humanity) and raw political determination. On Easter mornings, you’ll hear ministers preaching of how Jesus told his followers to have no fear; and yet so much of the church’s focus is on a commitment to fear, congregants begging for mercy, acknowledging ourselves as miserable sinners. So much of our sense of worship, in so many churches, is to let the Bible’s more poetic episodes fall aside; there’s an industry-wide practice of promoting the church more than promoting the heart. The act of forgiveness seems promoted as a virtue but not as anything that anyone deserves.
But without my religious upbringing, and without these conflicts between the desire for story, for narrative, for emotional truth vs. the burden of adhering to that which is politic for us to reveal, I probably wouldn’t have my subject as a fiction writer. I tend to write about community and its influence, I guess. The Coffins of Little Hope, the book I just published, is about conflicting narratives and truths. The novel’s narrator is the town’s obituary writer, and at 83, she has helped the town understand its own character, its own nature, by chronicling that which has just been lost. And she’s faced, at this late point in her life and career, with a community in the act of dissolution—so she clings to a hoax that’s inspired by a fairy tale, really, or more specifically, a farmwoman’s fairy tale sense of what will move this community to sympathy—the farmwoman has invented her own Gretel, her own babe lost in the woods. She cries wolf, and the villagers come running.
Maria Tater: May I bring the conversation back to Kate’s anthropomorphized numbers? I feel sure that her animated numbers are very close to Nabokov’s colored numbers, the red five for example, that he evokes in his self-description as a synaesthete. Jonathan Safran Foer tells us, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, that memory wizards suffer from a “perceptual disorder” known as synaesthesia. Words can set their minds on fire, and they often have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. Nabokov was, of course, our consummate memory artist.
I raise this issue because Nabokov was very much on my mind when I was writing Disturbing the Airwaves, a book based on the story of a boy growing up in Nazi-occupied Athens. Every morning last summer, my reading alternated between history and fiction, books about Greece and novels by Nabokov. It was he who taught me how to conjure mental images with nothing more than light, air, scents, and sounds—along with some smoke and mirrors.
But to return to fairy tales: They are, by contrast, so drained of sensory imagery and they give us flat, depthless characters and landscapes. And yet, perhaps because they give us so little, obliging us to use our imaginations to fill in all the gaps, they are all the more powerful.
Kate Bernheimer: Part of what draws me so to old fairy tales is how they are drained of sensory imagery—the abstraction leaves so much room for the reader; I like what C. S. Lewis said of himself as an adult reader: “I got much more out of fairy tales...because I could put so much more in.” And I really can’t wait to read Disturbing the Airwaves.
Browse these five writers' favorite fairytale-inspired books: View slideshow
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Kate Bernheimer is the author of the novel trilogy The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, and The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, and of the story collection Horse, Flower, Bird. She has edited three fairy tale anthologies, including My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. She also writes children’s books. Founder and editor of the journal Fairy Tale Review, she is Associate Professor and Writer in Residence each spring at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
Kevin Brockmeier is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, and The Truth About Celia; the children's novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery; and the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is the author of two novels, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award, and Madeleine Is Sleeping, a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. She was recently named one of “20 Under 40” fiction writers by The New Yorker.
Timothy Schaffert is the author of three novels, The Coffins of Little Hope, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, and Devils in the Sugar Shop. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska and currently lives in Omaha. He has won the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award and the Nebraska Book Award.
Maria Tatar is the John L. Loeb Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, where she chairs the Program in Folklore and Mythology. She is the author of Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood, Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, and many other books on folklore and fairy stories. She is also the editor and translator of The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, The Annotated Peter Pan, The Classic Fairy Tales: A Norton Critical Edition and The Grimm Reader.
Nicoletta Ceccoli (illustrator) has illustrated many books, mainly in Italy, in the USA and in the UK. Her work has been exhibited at the Bologna Children’s Book fair seven times. She has also shown her work among the others in Roq la Rue (Seattle), Magic Pony (Toronto), Dorothy Circus (Rome), and the Richard Goodall Gallery (Manchester). In 2001, Nicoletta was awarded with the Andersen prize as best Italian illustrator of the year. She is also a four time recipient of the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts. In 2006 she received the silver medal from Society of Illustrator (New York).
Fairy Tale Review is edited by Kate Bernheimer. Its mission is to publish new fairy tales, to raise public awareness of the literary influence of fairy tales, and to generate an increased appreciation of their power and depth as an art form in an effort to preserve the tradition.