A word on words
The language of illumination and memory

The language of fairy tales

The Raven Su Blackwell

The Frog Prince by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat, etc.) in the current issue of  The Write Place at The Write Time:

"Traditionally, the role of fairy stories has been to articulate concepts too emotionally difficult or socially subversive to be treated in a more explicit way. Originally part of a matriarchal oral tradition, they became legitimized as a more patriarchal literary convention -- much in the same way that traditional magic (feminine) was later absorbed by the (primarily male) science of alchemy before shedding its magical elements altogether and becoming the science of chemistry.

"Elemental fears, subconscious desires, sexual taboos are all at the heart of the fairytale; initially intended for an adult, rather than a juvenile audience, enabling folk with bleak and often unhappy lives to come to terms with their monsters, both literal and metaphorical, as well as offering them the hope that sometimes those monsters could be overcome. Since then, much has been made of the deepening division between the literal and figurative view of fairytale (in the same way that the division between science and magic has now become definitive), but in my view, the basic need for these stories is as great as it ever was.

"Like our concept of the divine, which has expanded over 2000 years to fit an expanding world picture, our acceptance of the supernatural has changed -- at least, to a point -- although I would argue that even three hundred years ago, fairy tales were not intended to be taken entirely literally. Every age has its monsters, be they werewolves, vampires, terrorists, AIDS, crazed gunmen or pedophiles, and every age needs to believe in the ability of human beings to defeat monsters, change their lives and ultimately be saved by love.

"I would argue, furthermore, that every age has its magic, too -- although our concept of magic has adapted to fit a more rational world. We now have a need to rationalize our need to believe in magic, as our world picture and our understanding of possibility continues to expand. But as the science-pendulum begins to swing back -- with particle physics seemingly bringing us back ever closer to what once was called 'magic,' I think that the literal-figurative debate will become increasingly less relevant, as will the division between 'conventional literature' and the oral tradition. These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power."

(I recommend reading the whole interview here.)

Sleeping Beauty by Su Blackwell

The Girl in the Wood by Su Blackwell

From a discussion with me in the same web journal a few years back:

"As with myths and folk tales, a good fantasy novel is literally spell-binding, using language to conjure up whole new worlds, or to invest our own with magic. The particular power of the fantasy novel comes from its link with the world's most ancient stories – and from the author's careful manipulation of mythic archetypes, story patterns, and symbols. A skillful writer of fantasy knows he or she must tell two stories at once: the surface tale, and a deeper story encoded within the tale's symbolic language. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone (for example) is, on one level, simply an English boarding school novel with a bit of magic thrown in; but below that surface is a classic narrative of the Orphaned Hero archetype. This second, metaphorical story is the one that makes the novel's appeal so universal, speaking to all children (orphaned or not) who navigate the treacherous passage that lies between childhood and adulthood. I don't mean that children's fantasy should be didactic, with a subtext intended to inculcate moral lessons – heaven forbid! But the magical tropes of fantasy, rooted as they are in world mythology, come freighted with meaning on a metaphoric level. A responsible writer works with these symbols consciously and pays attention to both aspects of the story.

"Jane Yolen once wrote, 'Just as a child is born with a literal hole in his head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in his heart. What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow. Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart.' I believe that those of us who write stories for children or young adults should remember how powerful stories can be -- and take responsibility for the moral tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world. This is particularly true in fantasy, where the tools of our trade include the language, symbolism and archetypal energies of myth. These are ancient, subtle, potent things, and they work in mysterious ways."

Cinderella by Su Blackwell

The Wild Swans by Su Blackwell

And from Ursula K. Le Guin's classic essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”  (1973):

"[Fantasy] is not anti-rational, but para-rational; not realistic but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes which, as Jung warned us, are dangerous things.  Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity that naturalistic fiction is. And it is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously."  

Your thoughts?

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellThe sculptures here, of course, are by the UK artist Su Blackwell -- for no look at paper art this week would be complete without re-visiting her splendid work.  From top to bottom: "The Raven," "The Frog Prince," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Woman in the Wood," "Cinderella," "The Wild Swans," and "Out of Narnia." Jane's quote above comes from Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood.


I could not agree more. Again, again should be the cry after every good tale well told. I love Jane's comments, agreeing with them whole (I hope) heartedly. In yesterdays comment I mentioned that we leave stories out of children's lives and risk leaving out part of their hearts. I think we need to extend this to adults as well. The adults who have lost touch with stories have a part of their heart breaking. Stories are the glue that stick us together as a group, whether that be as family, school or society. The idea that we grow out of fairy tales is insidious as it suggests we have offered them as children's stories only.

The artwork here is deeply beautiful and the articles perceptive and thought-provoking, but I do take exception to a sweeping generalisation in which it's asserted that both the oral tradition and magic are female. There was of course the well known Wise Woman in medieval European society, but there was also her male counterpart known as the Cunning Man, (who was by no means as rare as some seem to believe). Also it has to be stated that the tradition of Shamanism is certainly not lacking in male practitioners.

As for the oral tradition, quite apart from many of us being familiar with the garrulous old granddad who told many a tall tale, let us not forget Homer the true Grand Father of European story telling, and the other Greek Aioidos who spread the tales of Greek heroes throughout the land. Also within the Serbian tradition there was the 'Guslar' often male and the 'Manaschi' in Kyrgyz society. Other traditions I am sure had their male practitioners.

it may seem to many that I've gone "off piste" in my reaction to this posting, but I'd like to say that I find today's casual misandry as offensive as the misogyny that women so rightly fight against. The oral tradition and practice belong to all people of our global society not just one section of it.

Sorry, meant to say trivial stories only, not Children's. I consider children's stories as some of the most important writing available.

I don't believe that's what Joanne is saying. She's never stated here that the *entire* oral tradition is female, which of course it's not. There is indeed a very rich and lengthy oral tradition for all kinds of magical tales, not just fairy tales: myths, legends, hero tales, epics, etc., told by both sexes. Historically, most professional storytellers were men -- they were the most able to travel to ply their trade, or to find patrons among the aristocracy. (The bardic tradition, for example, with only extremely rare exceptions, was an exclusively male one.) Plus, as you point out, there is a male shamanic tradition dating back to pre-Christian Europe which is entwined with folktales of many kinds. But that's not what she's discussing here.

She's talking, as she states, about fairy tales, a very specific portion of the oral tradition, and that *is* historically a largely female domestic tradition (at least in the West). It should be possible to discuss this historical reality without this implying that men are being slighted, just as it's possible to talk about the gendered context of male initiation tales (for example) without implying that women are being slighted.

As for magic: she is making a comparison between the history of fairy tales in the West (as they moved from the oral tradition to print) with the history of magic in the West (as it moved from "natural magic" [a.k.a. "folk magic"] as the dominant strain to "scholarly magic" -- to use the terms by which scholars of the history of Western Esotericism refer to these two strands). In this, again, I feel she's not wrong, for "natural magic" was largely (though by no means *entirely*) a women's tradition in the West, whereas "scholarly magic" (hermetic philosophy, alchemy, etc. etc...the forerunners of chemistry), which flourished from roughly the Renaissance onward, and which required access to books and education that was out of reach for most women at that time, was a distinctly male preserve. She's comparing this to the way that male writers/editors like Basile, Straparola, Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm came to dominate the fairytale field at the point where it turned from an oral to a literary tradition. It's a broad comparison, and like any broad comparison one can come up with specific examples that don't fit it, but it's nonetheless fair of her, I think, to compare the two. I don't think that makes Joanne a misandrist. (I take your point that she could have been clearer about precisely what she meant by "magic," and perhaps if this had been an essay rather than a short interview, she might have been.)

To acknowledge the gendered history of these things (where the history is known) is not to say that any of these "belong" exclusively to either gender, but simply to acknowledge the historical forces that shaped them. Certainly in the last couple of centuries women have been a greater force (if not yet an equal force) in alchemical fields like chemistry and physics, while "natural magic" fields like herbalism are no longer dominated by women. (*Waves at Joel.*) And when it comes to magical tales (both oral and literary) today, I'm very pleased that both genders are well represented...

...though I'd argue that in a survey of contemporary writers of magical fiction, more women than men work with specifically fairy tale material, whereas male writers, in the fantasy field and elsewhere, are more likely to mine the other areas of the oral tradition: myth, epic, hero tales and so forth.

I love the artwork-as I have through all of the "words" posts and of course what Joan Harris says about magic speaks deeply to me-I do feel that a blurring is starting to happen-between what is written and what is said or told in song, between magic and science, really between the ancient and the new.

Hello Terri, I tried to post a reply earlier and it seemed to bounce off into the ether. Hopefully you won't get two comments more or less repeating themselves.

Anyway, thank you for your well considered reply. I accept the vast majority of what you say. However I still believe that unless a reader has an in depth knowledge of the oral tradition and the practice of magic, reading this article could quite easily lead many to believe that both were the almost exclusive preserve of women.

P.S. My comments about misandry were meant as a statement about society in general. I am in no way saying that Joanne Harris is a misandrist, but I believe it is possible for all of us to inadvertently use language and genralisations in a way that can give a wrong impression.

Fair enough, Stuart. And I don't mind differing opinions here (nor do I assume I'm correct just because it's my blog!), so long as the discussion is civil and well-meaning.

And oy, once again interesting discussion here is diverting me from Work That Must Get Done, so I'm off now....

This post is wonderful, full of delicious bits and pieces. It's like a spread of chocolate truffles has been laid out in front of me; I'm so excited I don't know where to begin.

Re: the origin of magic and fairy tales
While the origin of magic and fairy tales doesn't exclusively belong to the masculine or feminine, they were both cast into the feminine domain as lesser or even not legitimate art and healing forms. And here they remained until they became a threat to those in power, who were primarily males-- and then they were transformed, as you said Terri, into the academic, leaving the violent, sexual, 'dark' bits out of the tales, and the magic healing arts were also eradicated (one needs to look no further than the witch hunts to see the ample evidence of this). As far as my experiences go, this alliance abounds to this day-- especially the fairy tales, now seen as simplistic tales for children, still in many circles not considered worth academic study in universities (which is still, in many ways, very much a male world). I feel sometimes like I have to fight tooth and nail to be heard, much less taken seriously as a woman who works in the mythic landscape as well as trained in the magical healing arts by my shaman grandmother. I just wanted to add this in case it helps anyone.

As for the energies of the masculine and feminine, this has come up a lot in the last few days and especially in my most recent shamanic journey, (which I have detailed on the blog under "The Earth Bringer", if anyone is interested to read). It seems as though the universe has a theme for me this week.

Re: the concept of magic fitting the rational world
I read about how "fairy" sightings-- willow of the wisp, orbs, little nature creates have gradually, the last hundred years or more, have been slowing to almost a halt. And in their place has appeared UFO sightings. I see this very much as paralleling the shifts in our society, from the magic and folklore into the science and science fiction arena. But, I am happy to see, "little green men" remain.

I was reading a book just yesterday that quoted Jane Yolen! "Believe in your monsters." I've been thinking about this ever since. I think that if we subscribe to this, we writers-- if we believe in our monsters, they will retain their depth, and the stories we tell will have those layers that truly great ones seem to require.

I've written a tale that came from my own depths, and I've been questioning it lately. I wonder if it's even important at all, if people would find it stupid and childish. But this post has helped me so much. It's reminded me that stories are powerful, and this one can remain powerful for me if no one else.

Also- the first link with the interview with Joanne Harris seems to be broken.

Thanks for this post, Terri. It's resonating.

Oh dear, excuse all the typos, please.

Just popping in quickly to note that Erzebet Carr has a posted a lovely piece about fairy tales, modern fairy tale fiction, and Alice Hoffman's work. (We seem to be on the same wave-length today.) Here's a snippet:

"Fairy tales aren’t neat. They are wild, as wild as an overgrown hedge, as wild as the deep woods and broad desert. And maybe that is how you know you’ve entered one after all, when the view from where you are sitting changes from paved streets and manicured hedges to a place populated by mystery, where wonder waits around every corner."

The full post, "Reading Alice Hoffman's Green Heart" is here:


And I love Hoffman's book(s) too.

I's like to bring up the notion I've been carrying around for most of my life. Part of magic is both
poetic and musical. Chants, spells, spellbinders. I have always thought, since I fell in love with poetry,
that it was the hidden music I wanted to find in it, while trying to learn how to do it. The pattern of
the fairy tails in my childhood, One upon a time....to -happily ever after. Musical magic. My first sense
of thrill in reading a new to me writer is - is there music hidden in here? For me it has to be far away
from adding up taxes or how to use a camera. Useful but not musical.

Have you written fiction or poetry about that, Phyllis?

You've said, "I've written a tale that came from my own depths, and I've been questioning it lately. I wonder if it's even important at all, if people would find it stupid and childish."

This reminds me of the advice from NY columnist Cynthia Heimel that helped me so much in my own early writing days, paraphrased in this excerpt from the Dare to be Foolish post:

"Don't be afraid to be weird, don't be afraid to be different, don't worry too much about what other people think. Whatever it is that's original in you and your work might sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. That probably means you're on the right track, so just keep going."

(The full post, for anyone interested: http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/creativity-and-foolishness.html )

I've fixed the broken link.

I don't find anything troubling in acknowledging the historical role of women in the development of fairy tales , and since that's not what this post seems to me to be about I'd like to re-focus on the subject Terri has presented for discussion here: the language of fairy tales, and its power.

I'm intrigued by this line in Harris's interview: 'These stories speak to the irrational mind, and therein lies their power' ... which is echoed by the quote from Usula LeGuin. LeGuin, Terri, and Jane all speak about the responsibility of the fantasy writer to use these symbols, this language, this power wisely. Erzebet Carr develops this thought further in her essay on fairy tales and Alice Hoffman.

This is something I wrestle with in my own work, and when teaching creative writing. Clearly we need to go into the dark to grapple with the full range of human experience - as Alice Hoffman herself has said, ''Every fairy tale had a bloody lining. Every one had teeth and claws'. And Terri writes, ' I believe that those of us who write stories for children or young adults should remember how powerful stories can be -- and take responsibility for the moral tenor of whatever dreams or nightmares we're letting loose into the world.'

I agree with this, and yet I respond, on a level of pure entertainment, to certain works of horror fiction, to certain shoot-em-up thrillers and video games, and I'm never quite sure what to make of this. A necessary part of the human experience? Pop culture conditioning and desensitising? If I believe that words and images have power, and I do, then what power, good or bad, are we unleashing in these areas, as either creators or audience?

These are questions I ponder, not ones I have answers for.

Thank you so much, Terri. This addresses everything I've been thinking and fearing on this part of the journey, of the process. "Walking down the street naked" is right. It's wonderful and reassuring to know my own insecurities about the work probably reflects its depth and the baring of my own shadows. Also, thanks for fixing the link, too. This post has been so rewarding and heart-opening.

Love this, too.

I don't think I have directly, but that is a fine suggestion. Thank you.

I agree Phyllis, as a teenager I turned to writing poetry because I felt it was the closest thing I could get to magic. I still feel that.

I love Jane's quote about having a hole in our hearts, as children, that will eventually heal over, and whatever gets in before that happens, shapes us and makes us. I think of all the influences on me in my teenage years and they are the ones that have stayed, that shape, even today, the creative work I do, my world view, my spiritual beliefs. They are powerfully important years.

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