On fairy tales old and new
Tuesday, June 29, 2021
"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."
- P.L. Travers (About the Sleeping Beauty)
"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest. This need was created by myth. The fairy tale tells us of the earliest arrangements that mankind made to shake off the nightmare which myth had placed upon its chest."
- Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Illuminations)
"The great archetypal stories 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."
- Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)
"The reason why fairy tales last is because they allow us to gaze at ourselves through a glass that is at once transparent and reflective. They give us a double gaze to see ourselves from the inside out and the outside in, and they exaggerate our roles just enough to bring into focus the little pieces of monster that grow on our hearts."
- Sabrina Orah Mark ("The Evil Stepmother," Paris Review)
"Raised as I was on the darkest, grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales, 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."
- Joanne Harris ("Fairy Tale Reflections #27," Seven Miles of Steel Thistles)
"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid. They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes."
- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)
"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."
- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)
"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love."
- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)
''It’s no coincidence that just at this point in our insight into our mysteriousness as human beings struggling towards compassion, we are also moving into an awakened interest in the language of myth and fairy tale. The language of logical arguments, of proofs, is the language of the limited self we know and can manipulate. But the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith.''
- Madeleine L’Engle (A Circle of Quiet)
"It is through beauty, poetry and visionary power that the world will be renewed."
- fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar
The art today is from Honeycomb, an unusual and thoroughly enchanting "mosaic novel" by Joanne Harris, with gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess. The book, Harris explains, began like this:
"Ten years ago, I started writing little stories on Twitter. I don't know why I did this, except that Twitter seemed to me to be the right places for stories, and because I felt those stories were for telling, not writing. Some stories take life from the fact that they have an audience right there, ready to comment and react, and Twitter gave me that audience. It also gave a context to some of my stories -- which seemed at first to be fairy tales, but which were also drawn from the world of current events and politics. And as time went by, people began to request more news of their favourite characters, and I began to realize that I was creating something like a new oral tradition: a new medium for folklore. And interlinked series of stories, all set in the same honeycomb universe as The Gospel of Loki and Orfeia, with an overarching storyline about love, magic, the power of story and the request for redemption."
It's a deeply magical honeycomb of stories, an exquisitely beautiful volume, and a fascinating evolution of the fairy tale form.
The art above, by Charles Vess, consists of full illustrations and painting details for Honeycomb by Joanne Harris (Gollancz UK, 2021). The title of each piece can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to art and text in this post reserved by the artist and authors.