The only real story
Imagining a different kind of world

Telling the hard stories

Vasilisa

In "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation With Alice Hoffman," the author discusses why she drew on folkloric elements to tell a story about the Holocaust in her recent novel The World That We Knew:

"I grew up read­ing fairy tales and, as a kid, I always pre­ferred them to oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture, because I felt like they told the truth. I felt like sym­bol­i­cal­ly, they got to the deep­est emo­tion­al truth. That feel­ing about fairy tales has stayed with me, and also the feel­ing that these were the orig­i­nal sto­ries, told by grand­moth­ers to grand­chil­dren, to intro­duce them to the world — all that’s good and all that’s bad, what to be wary of and how to live your life. The oth­er part of it, though, was that there have been so many nov­els writ­ten about the Holo­caust, and I real­ly haven’t read any of them. I have read a ton of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, but not nov­els. The sto­ry of the Holo­caust is so illog­i­cal and irra­tional. It makes no sense. Why would peo­ple act this way? It’s inhu­mane. It just defies log­ic. The only way that I felt I could tell it was to use fairy-tale log­ic to try to make sense of a world where noth­ing made sense."

Hansel & Gretel by Charles Robinson

In an earlier piece, from 2004, Hoffman also defended the value of fairy tales and why we are drawn to tell and re-tell them:

"Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads Hansel and Gretel feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely.

"It has long been my belief that writers of fiction fall into two categories: those who write to explain their lives, and those who write to escape them. Both, I suppose are looking for some 'truth' about their experiences, but the former are shackled by their worlds; the latter are free to imagine new ones. Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Hoffman's World War II novel, The World That We Knew, follows a trail blazed by several previous works of Holocaust literature making use of fairy tale themes: Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose (1992), Lisa Goldstein's short story "Breadcrumbs and Stones" (published in Snow White, Blood Red, 1993), and Louise Murphy's novel The True Story of Hansel and Gretel (2003) in particular -- as well as Peter Rushford's Kindergarten (1976), a too-little-known novel for young readers centered on a fairy tale artist with a Holocaust history.

In listing these antecedents to Hoffman's book, I don't mean to imply that her work is derivative, for it is the nature of fairy tales to be retold, and the nature of fantasy books to be in conversation with each other -- in fact, it's one of the hallmarks of our field. Whether or not Hoffman is familiar with the stories I've listed, a certain number of her readers will be, and it is through readers as well as through writers and their texts that the Great Conversation continues.

Legend of Rosepetal by Lisbeth Zwerger

Ellen Kushner and I were recently talking about this aspect of fantasy literature as she was preparing her talk for the launch of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. We can read fantasy books as stand-alone works, of course; and, if the tale has been well constructed, the experience will be a satisfying one; but to fully appreciate the best works in our field requires knowing something of its history. Fantasy fiction is rarely (if ever) sui generis; it exists within the context of a rich and varied tradition, written in reponse to, or against, what has come before. It is an art form that does not depend on novelty for effect, but constantly references older stories and tropes, re-fashioning them into new shapes.

Fantasy writers, said Lloyd Alexander (as quoted in last Thursday's post), "draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied."

The Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In the contemporary fantasy field, Tolkien's 'Pot of Soup' contains not only the myth cycles, epics, and heroic romances he drew upon for The Lord of the Rings but also fantastical stories of a more recent vintage, including those by Tolkien himself. Themes, characters, imaginary landscapes, evocative metaphors and arresting images from works produced in the 19th and 20th centuries now swirl in that pot, flavouring the stories of writers today in ways both obvious and subtle.

In some fields, "influence" is a suspect thing, as though influence equals imitation. (It doesn't, and shouldn't.) Our field, by contrast, celebrates the influence of older stories and older works of art, bringing the old and the new into dialogue. For example: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is, among many other things, a response to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' work: a conversation about what magic is, what power is, and what an imaginary world might be like if it grew from nonWestern mythic traditions. Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess is, among many other things, a lively conversation with Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. Snow White, Blood Red, the fairy tale anthology Ellen Datlow and I published back in 1993, was a direct response to Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood (1983); just as The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien (2016), is now in conversation with us all.

Although I've savoured Hoffman's work since her very first novel (Property Of, 1977), I haven't yet read The World That We Knew. You have to be ready to enter the hard stories, and I haven't been ready until now. As I turn through its pages, I will hear the whispered voices of Jane's Briar Rose, Lisa's "Breadcrumbs and Stones," Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel and Rushford's Kindergarten, along with the echoes of fairy tales told and retold down through the centuries. Knowing the antecedents, the lineage, the tradition that Hoffman is working in will add to, not diminish, my appreciation of the book she's created. 

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In her fine essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen writes:

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always surprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed."

It is important for adult readers to have such books as well, as the daily news keeps reminding us.

I am grateful to the writers who tell the hard stories. And I am grateful to be part of the conversation.

Stories told and re-told

Rapunzel by Trina Shart Hyman

Words: The passages above are quoted from  "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation with Alice Hoffman" by Jamie Wendt (Jewish Book Council: PB Daily, August 31, 2020); "Sharpening an imagination with the hard flint of fairy tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April 4, 2004); "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (Horn Book, Dec. 16, 1971); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin, "Hansel and Gretel" by Charles Robinson, "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Legend of Rosepetal" by Lisbeth Zwerger, an illustration for "The Arabian Nights" by Edmund Dulac, and "Snow White" and "Rapunzel" by Trina Schart Hyman. All rights to the contemporary works reserved by the artists.

Related reading, on the subject of influence and tradition: "On finding your voice," Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence, and "In the Tradition" by Michael Swanwick, which can be found in his book The Postmodern Archipelago (1997), and in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,  Volume 8 (1995).

Comments