Old stories made new
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
P.L. Travers (the creator of Mary Poppins) once said: "I shall never know which good fairy it was who, at my own christening, gave me the everlasting gift, spotless amid all spotted joys, of love for the fairy tale. It began in me quite early, before there was any separation between myself and the world. Eve's apple had not yet been eaten; every bird had an emperor to sing to and any passing beetle or ant might be a prince in disguise....Perhaps we are born knowing the tales, for our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run about in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first hear them is not of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered. Later, like streams, they run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy, instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting this is a long process. It may perhaps take a lifetime and the few who come around to the tales again are those who are in luck."
"Fairy stories are related to dreams," muses A.S. Byatt, "...and dreams are maybe most people's first experience of unreal narrative, and to myths. Realism is related to explanations and orderings -- the tale of the man in the bar who tells you the story of his life, the historian who explains the decisions of generals and the decline of economies. Great novels, I believe, always draw on both ways of telling, both ways of seeing. But because realism is agnostic and sceptical, human and reasonable, I have always felt it was what I ought to do. And yet my impulse to write came, and I know it, from years of reading myths and fairytales under the bedclothes, from the delights and freedoms and terrors of worlds and creatures that never existed."
"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales," writes Joanne Harris, "I’ve always been very much aware of the dual nature of the world depicted in folklore and story. For every happy ending, there is an equally tragic one; children left to die in the woods; lovers parted forever; villains with their eyes pecked out by crows, or burnt alive; or hanged. Fairytale is a world away from the comfortable assurances of the Disney franchise – and surely that was the purpose of those original fairy tales, devised as they were for an audience comprising mostly of adults; often very poor; people whose lives were cruel and harsh, and who would never -- even in fiction ---have accepted to believe in a world in which the shadows did not at least occasionally rival the light."
"Fairy Tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood, " says author and activist bell hooks. "Despite all the messages contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice, the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail."
"The great archetypal stories," Jane Yolen notes, "provide a framework or model for an individual's belief system. They are, in Isak Dinesen's marvelous expression, 'a serious statement of our existence.' The stories and tales handed down to us from the cultures that proceded us were the most serious, succinct expressions of the accumulated wisdom of those cultures. They were created in a symbolic, metaphoric story language and then honed by centuries of tongue-polishing to a crystalline perfection. And if we deny our children their cultural, historic heritage, their birthright to these stories, what then? Instead of creating men and women who have a grasp of literary allusion and symbolic language, and a metaphorical tool for dealing with the problems of life, we will be forming stunted boys and girls who speak only a barren language, a language that accurately reflects their equally barren minds. Language helps develop life as surely as it reflects life. It is the most important part of the human condition."
"Magic happens," Maria Tatar observes, "when the wand of language strikes a stone and makes it melt, touches a spindle and turns it into gold, or taps a trunk and makes it fly. By drawing on a syntax of enchantment that conjures fluidity, ethereality, flimsiness, and transparency, writers turn solidity into resplendent airy lightness to produce miracles of linguistic transubstantiation. What is the effect of that beauty? How do readers respond to words that create that beauty? In a world that has discredited that particular attribute and banished it from high art, beauty has nonetheless held on to its enlivening power in children's books. It draws readers in, then draws them to understand the fictional worlds it lights up."
Philip Pullman gives this advice to writers and artists working with fairy tales today: "I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "
Why is it so important to re-fashion these stories for each new generation? I'll give Maria Tatar the last word here:
Because, she says, “it is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed.”
The wonderful paintings today are by Vanessa Garwood. Born in Israel in 1982, Garwood trained in painting and sculpture in Florence, followed by further studies elsewhere in Europe, Africa, and South America. She is currently based in London.
These paintings are from an exhibition inspired by Garwood's childhood love of illustrated storybooks: And is it true? It is not true. "The series," she says, "expresses a concern for the future of books in a time where their impact is being diminished by an ever increasingly virtual world. For books -- and also paintings -- as lasting physical objects passed down from generation to generation."
Go here to view more of the paintings, and to read the artist's notes on them.
Words: The Tavers quote is from her collection About the Sleeping Beauty (McGraw-Hill, 1975); the Byatt quote is from her collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye (Chatto & Windus, 1994); the Harris quote is from the "Fairytale Reflections" series on Katherine Langerish's Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog (July 2011); the hooks quote is from Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Expanded Edition: Anchor Books, 2003); the Yolen quote is from her collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981);the Tatar quotes are from Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood (WW Norton, 2009); and the Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The paintings above are Harriet and the Matches, Molly Whuppie, Fitcher's Bird, Griselda, King Robin, Ananse the Trickster Spider, and The Tailor of Gloucester. All rights reserved by the artist. Many thanks to Helen Mason for introducting me to Vanessa Garwood's work.